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  • Elliot Callighan

Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult people come in many different shades. They may: needlessly escalate situations, not follow through with their commitments, blame anyone but themselves, or focus on themselves rather than a shared goal. Whatever shade it is, it's not fun. It can be very tempting to "write them off" as being difficult and decide not to include them in your life any more. In extreme situations, this may be the best option that you have, but I've recently started to look for other ways to communicate with and develop people that I perceive this way. Why bother? Isn't it easier to "write them off?" They live their life, you live yours, and "they'll get what's coming?" Maybe, but... Part of the reason I feel this way is that you do not always have the luxury of "writing someone off."

  • They may be part of your team, even if it's not by choice.

  • This experience with them may be temporary - they may be a great friend and asset on any other day.

  • Division and lack of connection is the last thing I want to exacerbate given the state of the world.

And the biggest reason why I try to avoid "writing someone off" is: you're only so aware of yourself.





Of course we think that difficult person is so difficult that the problem is obviously with them - but ultimately we are always perceiving things through our own personal lens, and that lens is always far from objective.


The last thing we want to do is be difficult, then be so unaware that we alienate others and never grow ourselves. Especially if we are trying to foster relationships for our businesses and the teams we manage.


So, below are some things I try to do or keep in mind when presented with what I feel is a difficult person:



1. There is a legitimate reason they are feeling/acting that way.


This doesn't mean you're wrong and they're not being difficult. It also doesn't mean that they are handling or directing their attention and emotions in the most appropriate way, or that they are doing the best they can.


What I mean is that they are being effected by something, and the resulting behavior is a different thing than the person themselves. It's the behavior that's causing the problem, not the person.


People are complicated, as are their lives. We all have our own insecurities, hopes, goals, etc, and it's impossible for them to not influence us unintentionally. While their actions may not seem helpful or make sense in this isolated instance, there are always real reasons they are acting this way. Perhaps their past experiences are causing them to infer something else in the situation. Maybe they've never experienced expectations like the ones you have for them. They could be prioritizing different things or attempting to solve a different problem.


Whatever the case may be, no-one is being difficult for the sake of it. If you want some further thoughts on this, check out our past blog: Noone's actually trying to be the "bad guy."



2. The real problem is probably communication.


Nine times out of ten, the problem is a matter of being on the same page. What you think is painfully obvious usually isn't. Yes, even THAT thing!


A single typo, word selection or misinterpretation can determine when a message is truly understood or received. Teams and people with different cultural backgrounds can unknowingly be doing something considered very difficult by others. Communication is hard and requires vigilance, especially since miscommunication is bound to happen in one way or another. Something that happens that often is going to have the occasional bump in the road.


Realizing a certain inevitability with communication allows us to be more understanding and react better when it happens.



3. Judging won't help.


This is the hardest one for me to truly act on. From my time in the military, I can find myself devolving into a black and white mentality.


Either it happened or it didn't. There is no close or kind-of.


Even if you feel your judgement and communication is attempted with a lack of emotion (which is rarely truly achieved), the other person is going to have an emotional component to their reaction. The quickest way to make someone act more difficult is to not recognize that.


Any sort of judging will trigger defensiveness in them and probably yourself. And when ego is on the line, many people prioritize that over the problem and tasks at hand.



4. Shut up and listen.


Everyone wants understanding and validation. If we truly try to understand someone and what influenced their choices, it will help everyone find a solution for the behavior as opposed to cause and advertise shame for the person.


If you show that you value them in spite of the difficulty, they will be more receptive to anything you say and the solutions you present.


It's always better to delay your critique or interpretation of things. Asking "why" is also an incredible tool assuming you can use an inflection that won't be misconstrued. It allows you to tailor your interpretation based on their perspective of the situation.


That way, you can satisfy your want of communicating your interpretation of things while also validating their experiences. Win, win.



There are many additional ways to deal with difficult people, and I would not claim to be a HR professional. But to me, it all boils down to recognizing that people are almost always worth the trouble instead of just writing them off.


Valuing someone else costs nothing, but can bring so much to them, and eventually, it will bring the same (and probably more) back to you.

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