We’ve been working with people for nearly a century between the two of us! Horrendous thought.
And people haven’t changed much: some are engaged and engaging, some are remote, some are fun, some are serious, some are most of the above at different times and the only connection between all the people we meet and work with is us.
We’ve lost count of the number of times we’re asked how to deal with difficult:
- Line reports
In reality, none of these people is intrinsically difficult. It’s just that we see them as that. Or in that interconnection, in that circumstance, in that moment, in that point in our own development or thinking, we find them difficult. It’s in the eye of the beholder. What if we thought they were doing the best they could with the resources/skills/experience available to them?
Here’s a story: This morning, a woman blocked my car in to my drive. When I approached her to discuss (a bit annoyed) she explained that she couldn’t reverse her car! I (now very annoyed) encouraged her to try. I stopped her just before she hit the wall. I (deeply annoyed) offered to do it for her. It was an automatic. I couldn’t work it either! Incandescent, I asked her if she had passed her test.
Was I as cross with myself as her? Did I enquire how long she had had the car? Did I know why she was parked across my exit? Did I accept that I couldn’t do it either? No, I just thought she was stupid and difficult. And most of that was about me and my story rather than an objective assessment of how difficult she was in general. I didn’t actually need to be anywhere fast. I could have done something… all sorts of things…..differently. Instead I told myself the unhelpful story that she was deliberately obstructive. The only piece of this interchange that I could control was my own thoughts and I chose to make them corrosive. I certainly was more discomforted by this than she was and it soured my morning. What if I’d found it funny? That would have been a choice. What if I’d found out about her? That would have been a different choice.
When we tell ourselves a story (and we almost always are doing that), we make choices which mainly affect ourselves and hamper our own processing. Check out more about the stories we and others may tell ourselves at BBC Ideas, Crossing Divides, How to get on with someone you hate at work.
Then try this chain of questioning to check out your story and your choices:
- Keep calm, pause, check out your thinking
- What’s the evidence?
- What else might be true?
- Is this thinking useful to me?
- What could I choose instead?
And the other BIG thing to consider is, it’s usually not personal. Even if this difficult person is someone you see daily at work, check out whether they behave like this to everyone. Or everyone in sales, or everyone they know well. What’s the pattern? If they do it to all juniors, it’s not you. It’s not good but it’s not personal. So, don’t think about it, don’t respond to it as though it were. It’s not Kit they are rude to, it’s the translator, it’s not Min they ignore, it’s the receptionist, it’s not Sam they grumble about, it’s the Head of Department.
Yes, some behaviours are unacceptable. Notice some behaviours (not some people) and we might choose to challenge those. But first let’s ask ourselves if that challenge is a good use of our energy. Is the result so vital? Might we get what we want by just making the choice not to take this behaviour personally? By not giving it brain space? And choose instead to focus on things which support and develop us, which give us satisfaction. Our brains and feelings are wonderful and complex and we can choose how to manage them
Amongst the unacceptable behaviours are those that discriminate on grounds of gender, culture, ethnic background or ability. Sometimes in these situations, it’s a help to boost your own self-confidence, so that when you respond, you can feel firmly grounded and calm.
Maybe you think that people are difficult because you are a woman. It’s easy to be defensive, if so. And defensive behaviour can sometimes come over to other people as aggressive. Try to stay calm and factual. Ground yourself in data from respected bodies about the value of diversity– for instance the evidence from McKinsey & Company, that “companies that hire and retain more women … gain a competitive edge” and that those with “several senior women tend to perform better financially” (The McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008). You are part of this better performance. You deserve to be valued. Believe in yourself.
It’s also a help to gather support from other people so you don’t feel isolated. And it’s a help to know what the organisation’s policies are in case of harassment or bullying, so you can make an assertive request for a change of behaviour in line with accepted policies, or in case a situation gets beyond what you can handle on your own.
And the starting point is, as we said at the beginning, being aware that we can look through different lenses at the behaviour we find difficult and can choose how to interpret and react to it. When we know we have the power to manage ourselves and choose our responses, we can feel in control and be at our best. Then it doesn’t matter so much about the others.
About the author
Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall draw on extensive experience as both leaders and coaches of senior executives in their recent book “How to Work with People… and Enjoy It! (Routledge). Their previous book “The Art of Coaching: A Handbook of Tips and Tools” has met with wide acclaim. Both Jenny and Sarah have contributed to the coaching profession in the UK and Sarah is currently President of the UK Chapter of the International Coach Federation (ICF).