Dealing With Difficult People

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou)

No matter what we believe, we are hardwired to be affected by emotions, even at work.  I learnt this at a talk given by Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, authors of The Fear-free Organization.

The eight basic emotions are: love/trust, excitement/joy, fear, anger, sadness, shame, disgust and surprise. Two are positive, five are negative and one can be either. So this explains why we may experience more negative emotions.

Our early development in relationships deeply affects our brain, but current relationships also affect it (plasticity). The point here is that difficulties in relationships, whether at work or not, will be determined by the emotions triggered. There is no way to leave emotions at home!

Importantly a distinction has to be made between difficult people and toxic people. The latter are really bullies, who are autocratic, abusive, manipulative, and secretive. They damage your sense of self, and sap your confidence. Ideally, organisations would have zero tolerance for such people, but if not, then you have to avoid them, make allies with others, record instances of bullying, raise a grievance or even leave.

Difficult people upset, irritate and annoy you, they don’t listen, they’re dismissive and inflexible. If left unexamined, the relationship with such people could leave you drained of energy, losing trust, and sapped of creativity . The best way to deal with such people is to:

  1. Develop self-awareness. Look inside to understand why the emotions are coming up, develop strategies to keep cool (breathe deeply, pause before you respond etc), manage your expectations and remember you don’t have to get on with everyone.
  2. Get to know the difficult person. Be empathetic, open and respectful. Listen very carefully. Make clear what you want and expect. Explore common areas of interest. Find out discreetly what is bothering the other person.
  3. Focus on solutions. What can you do to improve things, rather than focusing on the past. Learn from mistakes
  4. Be tolerant of different approaches. Different is not the same as difficult. Avoid being defensive of ideas. Don’t assume you know the intentions of the other, better to ask.
  5. Turn things around. Disarm, be nice. Do something unexpected. Do a favour. Be complimentary.

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