Working with Difficult People: 3 Questions That helps

I work mainly with building teams, in a team, conflict is unfortunately an unavoidable factor that can occur. Same as a machine consist of parts that together adds up to a function and purpose. These parts might need need fixing no and then. A team likewise consist of people that interfere with each other to perform the function it is set to  solve, the purpose of the team. If we see the people within the organisation as parts of a machine, it is many things that can go wrong.

I been working with some conflicts in my career. To solve problems after analysing, designing a strategy and implementing the strategy sometimes taking the parts out to fix them is a solution. When the parts are out individuals often identify themselves as victims and/or people often do not really see themselves as a problem are typical. Fixing people parts if we can see it like that has one simple element, and that is to create understanding in the part. It rarely helps to tell someone they are the problem, go fix yourself! What you need to do is to create a greater understanding in the parts involved.

I have one example from a client, a typical client with a typical problem. No different from anyone else. It often starts with meeting a decision maker of some kind, someone who has addressed a problem within the team structure, some of the parts do not function as they should. There is always a finished and somewhat clear opinion to who and/or what the problem is to some degree. And in this case, it is no different. A conflict between two employees, the decision-maker who saw himself as a victim in the way an employee was behaving towards him. And an employee, who clearly showed no interest in changing his behaviour. Let it be noted that in Norway, we luckily have strong employment protection. So unlike many other places, we simply can not trow and replace this team part without further due. We have to try to fix things first, and that where people like me come in.

After talking to the decision-maker around the process and his role in this, he decided to use the meeting as an opportunity to shift perspective and try a new approach. He began by imagining that the employee had good intentions but was a bit rough around the edges. He considered that maybe if he aligned with the employee, he might be better able to direct him. First, he arranged the office chairs so that instead of face to face, they were at oblique angles and generally facing the same direction. Then he took a few deep breaths and opened the door.

The employee began by stating with intensity all that was going wrong with the project. The manager’s initial reaction was to resist the attack, but he refocused his attention on listening and understanding and sat quietly for a while. Instead of coming back with answers or a rebuttal, he found himself asking the employee what he thought the real nature of the problem was and what actions he would suggest to solve it. The confrontational atmosphere diffused and gave way to a sense of collaboration. The two were aligned physically in their chairs and now conceptually in the way they approached the problem. The change the manager made in himself turned out to be very effective, and both manager and employee began to work on solving the issues facing the project.

From Tormentor to Teacher

It’s hard to like everyone. Some colleagues are great partners; we know their style and blend easily with them. We “dance well together.” With others we always seem to be out of step. We wonder, How can they be that way? or What makes them tick? Or worse – we don’t care; we just want to be as far away as possible.

The problem is we still have to work with these people, and our reactivity in their presence gives them a kind of power over us. However, by seeking to understand the opponent, we take the initiative. At worst, we learn something. At best, we may turn them into an ally and improve the quality of the work environment.

But how do you turn a tormentor into a teacher? Begin by asking yourself some questions about who they are and why they behave the way they do.

Who is this person away from the workplace? See the different parts of this person – the parent, grandparent, friend, dancer, skier, singer, or loved one (of someone!). Chances are you’re only seeing the annoying part of your tormentor. Widen your perspective.

What is their positive intention? Underneath the disrespectful behavior, what do they really want? Respect? Independence? Control? Acknowledgement? Attention? You may realize that you have similar goals, though you seek them differently.

Why do you think they behave as they do? It’s useful to adopt the attitude that their actions have little (if anything) to do with you. Most people operate out of habit. Even if they don’t get the respect or attention they desire, they can’t change because they don’t know any other way. Maybe it falls to you to help them find it. Suggest ways they might achieve their aims more effectively. Be their teacher.

True Power

As you read this article, think of someone with whom your “dance” feels like a struggle. Then, instead of wishing they would change, start with yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong, at fault, or need to change your opinion. It means that in order to resolve the conflict it works better to begin with what you can control – you.

Remember that you’re doing this for you. You’re stuck and you want to get unstuck. Like your tormentor, you’ve been taking actions that aren’t working, so try something new. When your well-being depends upon the actions of others, you inadvertently give them power. But with awareness and practice, you can make new choices about how you respond to the difficult people and situations in your life – and take the power back.

Our project manager and his employee will have more opportunities to dance with conflict as their relationship changes and grows. Thanks to the manager’s willingness to try something new, they’ve discovered common ground from which to begin the process. We all have challenging people in our lives. Will they be tormentors or teachers? Our perspective greatly influences our response.

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