Let’s face it, some people are especially difficult to work with. It might be a boss, client, peer or even an employee that throws you completely off balance. They could be demanding, domineering, disrespectful, bullying, hostile, uncommunicative, uncooperative, etc. When we meet these people, most of us either try to extricate ourselves from the situation, or to "suck it up". We might look for another place to work, fire the employee, or politely let the client go. But not so fast!
Before you throw the person or situation to the curb, let’s rule out a few things first:
1. Are you called to a career filled with people facing difficult situations, emotions, and behaviors? Think about working in emergency and first responder roles. Attorneys, therapists and coaches fit this category as well. There are countless other roles, such as politics, retail and more that have difficult people baked into them. If this is you, keep reading.
2. Are you contributing to the dysfunction yourself? Now, this is a tough question to face head-on. However, while we may not be the sole cause of ongoing interpersonal difficulties, we can absolutely stoke the fires and keep it going. Do you find yourself feeling like a victim, responding defensively, trying to outmaneuver, overpower, convince, argue, avoid, or other adaptive behaviors where certain people are concerned? If this is you, keep reading.
3. Are you unintentionally settling for, or even attracting, the wrong situations and people? Most of us have found ourselves newly freed from a dysfunctional environment, only to feel like it’s happening all over again in a disconcertingly similar way. Some of us do it so often we become jaded, saying “Oh, all (businesses like this, bosses, men, women, etc.) are impossible to work with!” In fact, when we learn a fresh set of behaviors, we can, frequently, reframe a situation to a more productive and harmonious one.
People are “difficult” when they feel unheard, disrespected, undervalued, or that what they want/need is threatened. When we know our own worth, and where we are headed, working with difficult people becomes much easier to navigate. If any of the three assessment questions above might apply to you, here are some simple things you can do to ensure working with difficult people really can work for you:
Get A Tribe
Difficult people can deplete our energy and resources if we are not careful. I recently had a long, deep conversation with a professional healer (therapist) called to work with individuals struggling emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The saying "only surround yourself with people who lift you higher" would be a tone-deaf suggestion for her situation. Still, it is true that we can't be a light in the world if we deplete ourselves and never refill our resources. So, get a tribe - one that can keep you inspired and overflowing. A tribe can be your sounding board, your mirror and your safe place to land. This keeps you doing the work the world needs so desperately right now.
Stand for Yourself – Not Against Them
There are many ways to stand for ourselves with a difficult person without coming to real or metaphorical blows. First and foremost, we must practice self-care. Telling someone how awful they are making our work life has rarely motivated them to change. Simply put: we are the keepers of our own wellbeing, especially in a difficult work environment. Another way to stand for ourselves is to know what our non-negotiables are, so we don’t compromise ourselves. We must know ourselves, our value, our strengths, and what our scope of work really is. No one can rob us of our wellbeing, value or self-respect without us doing so first.
Don’t Take It Personally
Believe it or not, difficult people rarely mean to be that way. No matter where we work, we will always work with people. And every person brings their own biases, prejudices, traumas, unique perspective, personality, and whatever side of the bed they got up on that morning into work. If they habitually behave a certain way, that’s a reflection on them. If they behave a certain way in a particular situation, that’s a reflection of them too. You didn’t make them do it, and they usually aren’t trying to do it to you.
Recognizing this, it is possible to separate the person from the behavior. By focusing on the behavior, you can see when it is not acceptable, and what could be better. We may be talking about providing information in a timely manner, meeting deadlines, or paying what is owed. Then if they are not willing to work within a set of reasonable behaviors, you can decide what you need to do about it.
Don’t Try To Fix Them
Difficult people generally act the way they do because they think it protects them, makes their life easier, or is the only way to be. Many difficult people really prefer to stay the way they are. A few may suspect there’s a better way, and as a result, they are willing to try something new. You can suggest alternative approaches for these folks. But you are not responsible for riding herd on them and ensuring they do it. Give them hope for a better outcome, a clear path for new behavior, and you can offer them support and accountability as they try a new set of behaviors. Beyond that, change is up to them to enact. Similarly, the consequences of their behaviors are theirs too. Trying to make someone change is a recipe for your own exhaustion and frustration.
Invest in Professional Development
Most difficult people (as well as people who keep running up against difficult people) have never been given the opportunity to develop their leadership skills. These include communication, accountability, empathy, strategic thinking, active listening, self-awareness building, problem-solving and innovative thinking.
While it may not have been afforded to many of us, it is more accessible now than it has ever been. If you think you might benefit from learning the leadership skills that can really make working with difficult people work for you, then let’s talk! Schedule an exploratory call. It costs you nothing, and could truly change your life.