How to live a good work-life: How to deal with difficult people

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27 February 2020

Last month, as part of a series on “how to live a good work-life” I talked about resilience. This month, I thought it is apropos to extend the theme, by taking a look at dealing with people, especially people, with whom you have challenging relationships, at work.

It is becoming more and more common that I hear hiring managers ask about or talk about someone having high emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ).  Clearly educational background, technical expertise, and experience are prerequisite, but continuing to expand your EIQ is especially handy when dealing with difficult, inflexible and not-very-understanding people at work, both working for and having to manage them.  Over the course of a work career, we all have experienced these challenges.

Without experience and or natural personality emotional skills, our instinct usually leads to a flight or fight response when there is a conflict. If you tend to please and/or freeze when confronting difficult people, you may say “yes sir/madam”, or go silent. In both cases you quietly form resentments toward the other person or yourself for not standing up and…. On the side of the scale, when confronted in some way that seems unfair or unjustified, some of us say or at least think “f*ck you, no way.”  Clearly if we say it, the other person will form their own resentments ,and if we only think it, we can get angry at our self.

The “acting-out” is just as “bad as “not acting” in such instances. There are a lot of emotions at play here, yes, even though this is all in the office. Our core human emotional needs are to know that we are safe, valued, and welcome.  Believing we are safe, needs no explanation except that things like the possibility of a layoff can “feel” life threatening.  Believing we are valued can include being thought of as our work making a difference, for the company and our co-workers. Believing we are welcome, is about seeing that would unique aspects skills as well as needs are being supported by our manager and or the company. When we don’t believe these things are true, it is challenging to our sense of balance, security and well-being. We may continue to work hard in the short term but it is deeply upsetting when the person you are struggling with is your boss, and at some point the resentments or feelings of not being safe, valued, and welcome will get acted upon, often jumping at the first viable alternative opportunity, taking more risks with clients in an attempt to prove yourself valuable, or in some extreme situations, even silently slowing down your output, justifying that, if you were really valued, they would treat you better so they don’t deserve asking you to make sacrifices for the company.

None of these alternatives are good, so let’s focus on solutions, starting with the point that you are NOT a victim of circumstance.  You always have at least some course of action that makes things better and some power to right the situation, a form of “agency’ in every situation. The answer is YOU. The painful truth when it comes to the people who trigger you is this: You are not going to change them, as it is impossible. The only person you have control over, and the possibility of changing, is, yourself.

The easiest way to improve or at least not make these kinds of situations worse is to slow down and ask a couple of questions:

“What happened?”

What are the facts or what could someone else have observed?

“What is the story I am telling myself about what I think those facts mean?”

When… happened, what did “I” think it meant?  This is the most challenging because assigning meaning happens unconsciously. Notice that something happens, and you get to decide what it means.

It is funny to say, but many of us really don’t think about the two being different.  We assume we know what the other person was thinking and or that they knew how you were going to take it that they…  They truth is we, naturally, tend to “create” stories in our heads and not realizing that they are one-sided stories, perceptions formed based on incomplete or partial information. You need to distinguish the two prior questions to have a chance to get out heated discussions with challenging people.

I personally find a combination of the following remedies helpful:

  • Own your part. It takes two to tango, and if there is conflict, always ask yourself if is there another way that someone else could or would take what you did, or what they did to mean something different. This is not taking the blame for someone else’s actions but just this moment’s pause can often defuse a tense situation. If you can see how what you are doing may be contributing to this dynamic, then you have agency to change it
  • Be curious about what they might have been thinking was being communicated by doing or not doing… and remembering that in a rush, the message can be overwhelmed by the delivery
  • If you imagine shifting your focus to their underlying concerns/questions rather than what you know and think or the delivery, you have a much better chance to addressing the actual issue
  • In the coming months, I will take a look at developing and experiencing emotional work boundaries, but for the moment, see if taking a breath before reacting and allowing 5-10 sec of silence prior giving their response helps. Remember everyone wants to be listened to, taking a moment signals you are being thoughtful about what they have said.  Not only is it actually more effective and efficient than trying to guess where they are going, it avoids a knee-jerk reaction when you are triggered! When you speak in a matter-of-factly manner, not trying to attack or defend, you are using a professional emotional boundary and then there is much better chance moving forward
  • Language matters! Slowing it down allows you to notice if the first reactions is to judge, label, of use “loaded” words to push back.  I don’t know of many situations that are made better with this technique, and usually it results in escalation, and passive aggressiveness of your counterpart, which means not only have you stopped listening, so have they. Things most likely will spiral down from there, so proceed with care.
  • Try to understand the rationale/logic basis of your counterpart. I know this might not happen within split of second in a real-time conversation, but if it didn’t go well, take a moment, don’t let the opportunity to understand pass by. Just starting with “I wonder what that was about?” opens the door to finding answers or even unloading responsibilities. Facts are your best friends!

Today, we all work and live in complex ecosystems which are only going to get more complicated. Gearing ourselves to be ready for a myriad of challenges is something worth while fine-tuning over a life-time of career. Good luck!