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Tips on Dealing with Difficult People

You know the saying nothing is certain but death and taxes? Well I think you can add dealing with difficult people to that statement.I worked for some years as a social worker. During that time, I counseled many clients on how to manage difficult or challenging relationships. In one of my previous jobs, I reported directly to nine members of a local governing body. My experience has been that in any organization, family or group when you have different people with different personalities, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses you will have amongst them at least one who may push you a bit or challenge you. For example, you greet everyone in the morning by saying : Good morning, how are you? But when you extend this same greeting to Ann who works in the office adjacent to yours, she immediately begins complaining about home, work, her kids, her car, the cat, the weather, anything and everything. You then stop greeting Ann by asking “How are you?” You just say Good morning and keep going. You save the “how are you” part of the greeting until you are fortified with coffee and a few extra minutes to chat with Ann. You can’t get away from her because she works with you. But just in that small adjustment you have managed to maintain a productive working relationship with Ann. That’s a simple illustration but I share it to try and explain what I hope is gained from this blog post: Learning when an issue is so minor that it’s not worth confronting, knowing when adjustments may be beneficial and knowing when confronting the issue is necessary.

At some point all of us will have someone difficult in our lives. It could be someone similar to Ann or it could be more challenging than that situation. It could be that you are an employee and you have problems with your supervisor. You and your partner or neighbor may clash. You may have a disagreement with a relative or acquaintance. We all know that having conflict in our lives is bad for our physical and emotional health so it’s easy to know what to do when you encounter a difficult person and you do not have to interact with them on an ongoing basis: Avoid them! However, that becomes a bit trickier when the person is a family member, colleague or neighbor. If you ignore the problem, it may get worse. Employees or supervisors get fired, partnerships or marriages break up, people who must see each other stop speaking to each other. Its awkward and it’s unproductive. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all answer when discussing how to handle difficult people. How you deal with difficult people is very much determined by the type of behavior exhibited and the identity of the offender. An important question to consider is: Are they difficult or different?

I grew up in a household where there were seven kids. After my dad died, my mom did a great job as head of household but… there was only one of her and seven of us. There was a lot of love, but it was always noisy. A lot of talking, yelling and joking went on every day. If you took too long to make a point, we would finish making the point for you and quickly move on to the next subject. If we felt we had something to add to the discussion we didn’t wait for others to finish or wait for appropriate pauses to interject a point, we just barged right in. I had a close friend tell me once that it bothered her tremendously when I did that. She felt I never gave her an opportunity to finish her sentences. I knew by the change in how she interacted with me that something was wrong but didn’t know what I had done. My friend chose to confront me. She shared that she believed because I interrupted her I did not value her opinion and was disrespectful of her position. I was shocked but grateful that she felt comfortable enough to confront me. We have remained friends to this day. Consider your role in any conflict and be honest in your assessment.

Some behaviors exhibited by difficult people at work may be: aggressive behavior, a know it all attitude, playing the victim, a constant complainer and someone who can never admit they made a mistake.

The following steps may help you to successfully interact with difficult people:

Be proactive and develop a plan of resolution

Know your triggers

Manage your own emotions

Pick your battles

Clearly identify the disruptive behavior and the desired alternative

Explore what you are feeling with a trusted friend

Approach the person with whom you are having problems in a private conversation

In next week’s blog we delve a bit deeper into these steps and also share tips on how to handle negativity in the workplace. Don’t miss it!

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