You fire problem employees, but not difficult people.
Most people can share a story about a difficult person at work. These people generally fit into several categories, such as Hostile-Aggressive, Complainer, Silent-Unresponsive, Super-Agreeable, Negativist, Know-it-All Expert, and Indecisive.
A Hostile-Aggressive person tries to bully and overwhelm others, making cutting remarks and throwing tantrums. A Complainer gripes incessantly, but never tries to do anything about it. A Silent-Unresponsive person responds to most questions with a yep, nope, or grunt.
The funny, personable, and outgoing person is the Super-Agreeable—this person is supportive in your presence but does not follow through on work. “It won’t work,” says the Negativist, deflating any optimism you might have.
The Know-it-All Expert really does know it all, but in a condescending and imposing way. And the person who stalls on a major decision is the Indecisive.
Do you know any of these difficult people? Before reading any further, take out a piece of paper and list three difficult people in your life. Then, as specifically as possible, write what makes each person difficult and how you usually respond to the behavior.
There are two types of difficult people: situational, or when a person temporarily takes on difficult behavior that is different from normal, and chronic, or when a person acts in a difficult manner consistently.
I ask myself three questions to determine which type a person is:
- Has this person been difficult on at least five similar occasions?
- Was there a mitigating circumstance to cause this person to be difficult?
- Will open discussion with this person end the difficult behavior?
If the answer to question 1 is yes, you are dealing with a chronic difficult person. If the answer to questions 2 and 3 is yes, you are dealing with a situational difficult person. By categorizing your difficult person into a type, you will be able to know the coping techniques to use.
To cope with a difficult person, you must first assess the situation without overreacting. Use a limited communication response, such as “you might be right,” to a statement with which you disagree, but don’t want to argue about. Agree with criticism by saying, for example, “You are right, my desk is a mess,” and stop talking. To a public insult, you might respond this way: “Heather, your comment certainly deserves a response. Let’s meet privately after the meeting.”
There are special body positions to use when dealing with both types of difficult people:
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart, well-balanced, in an assured manner.
- Use a straight, open body posture.
- Mirror the body position of the other person, unless it is hostile.
- Take up physical space.
- Hold your head straight, not tilted.
- Use fewer, more deliberate gestures.
It is important to always remain calm, know what you want to say, and repeat it. Think before you speak, take deep breathes, and stay focused on the objective. Your intrapersonal communication is a major factor affecting the interpersonal communication between you and your difficult person. One last coping technique is to seek more information about the person and situation before you react. Ask about specifics, and then decide how to cope for a win-win outcome.