How to work with difficult people - Michelle Gibbings

How to work with difficult people

Many years ago, I worked with someone who took an instant dislike to me. In our interactions, they were rude, abrupt and generally unhelpful. I never got to the reason for their behaviour, but I did find a way to manage it.

My approach was the opposite of their behaviour. I went out of my way to be kind, helpful and friendly. Over time, I found that their frostiness thawed, and while we never became friends, the working relationship certainly improved.

We all have people in our personal and professional life who we find challenging. We may label them as ‘precious’, ‘difficult’ or ‘hard work’. The typical approach to managing or working with people like this is to try to avoid them or find a way to work around them.

This may work short term, but it’s not an effective long-term strategy.

Instead, your strategy starts with spending more time with them. You might be scratching your head at this point, thinking – ‘Really! They drive me nuts already, and you want me to spend more time with them!!’  Yes, I do. When you spend more time with a person, you can better understand their perspectives and what motivates and drives their behaviour. You will likely find you improve your relationship with them too.

This approach leverages the advice of Stephen Covey, the author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

We all interpret the world and what is happening through the lens of our own experience. Consequently, it’s often effortless to misinterpret a person’s intent or think we know what they are thinking or why they behave in a certain way.

By seeking to understand, we suspend judgement and drop the labels by being curious, open-minded, and interested in them. All of which puts us in a far better position to cultivate a healthy relationship.

Listen first; talk later
People want to feel they have been heard and their needs listened to. When they don’t, they’ll take one of two ends of the spectrum – withdraw from the conversation or find ways to destabilise or aggravate it.

In contrast, when a person feels heard, they feel valued and that they matter to you. This is because they can see that their point of view is being considered and you are interested in what they say.

When you listen effectively, you are genuinely interested in what is said and unsaid. You seek to understand the other person’s needs and listen with empathy and compassion.

This means you ask questions and seek to clarify what you’ve heard before sharing your ideas or providing a solution. By doing this, you acknowledge how they feel and take the time to recognise what they need.

Investigate your reaction
When you feel frustrated or annoyed by the actions of others, it’s essential to challenge your immediate reaction.

A reactive response is usually not done from the wisest mindset, potentially harming your health, relationships and leadership brand.

A considered response is one where you are naturally curious about what is happening, what may be triggering your reaction and why you want to behave in a certain way.

This approach isn’t about ignoring how you feel. Instead, it’s about making sense of your feelings and acknowledging them. It’s accepting that, in many cases, the cause of the frustration is less important than the meaning you place on it and what you choose to do about it.

Once you have this understanding, you are better placed to know how to respond wisely and what action to take.

Next time you come across a person at work or in your personal life who you find difficult or precious, ask yourself:

  • Why am I feeling like this?
  • Why does it matter to me?
  • What meaning am I giving to this situation?
  • What else could it mean?
  • What assumptions am I holding?
  • What else could be driving this person’s behaviour?
  • What would a wise response be?

As you answer those questions and work through the best approach, you’ll learn more about yourself and the other person.

This approach doesn’t mean you step away from your values and don’t stand up for yourself and what you believe. It does mean, however, that you are open to the perspectives of others and recognise that you don’t hold the licence on being right.

When you stop reacting and take the time to ponder, reflect and respond, you will find more meaning, deeper relationships and better outcomes.

Challenge yourself
As part of this, you also want to reflect on your role and what part you may be contributing to the dynamic.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I bringing my best to this relationship?
  • Are there times when I add fuel to the fire?
  • Do I need to be more mindful of my impact on them?
  • Am I expecting them to give more than I am willing to give?
  • Have I put enough effort into making this relationship work?

Set boundaries
All good relationships have boundaries. Those boundaries outline what matters and what’s acceptable in how you work and connect with each other.

Do you know their boundaries, and do they know your boundaries?

For example, do you agree on how you respond to work outside standard working hours? Do you have agreements about how to share the workload and how you will work together?

If your answer to those questions is ‘no’, then it’s time to talk with the person about how you can better work together.  Start by inviting them to a conversation with you and focus on why this relationship matters to you.

As the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini said, “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.” While her comments were made in a different context, they are very relevant when it comes to relationships.

Good relationships are a cornerstone of a healthy and thriving workplace, and everyone needs to own their part and be willing to step into those difficult moments.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.


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