Dealing with Difficult Behavior

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Each of us can probably think of at least one difficult personality with whom we have had to deal with, either at work or in our personal lives. With a strategy, it is possible to learn what the person does to annoy you, and what you might be doing to aggravate the situation.

Dealing with Difficult Situations

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A difficult person can be your boss, your co-worker, or anyone else. He or she behaves in a way that is disruptive to business or life outside of work. In a work setting, often the functioning of a team is disturbed leading to a disruption of the work flow, flared tempers, and gossip. The bottom line is that work suffers and difficult situations cost organizations money. 

To deal with difficult people, we innately try to apply coping filters, such as:

  • Removing virtually all positive attributes about the person. (“He was my worst hiring mistake…”)
  • Defaming him or her (We build consensus with others against the person)
  • Explaining the person in negative terms.

Anger also plays a big part; feeling angry, we instinctively use anger to try to manage the situation.

To break the cycle of negativity, take time to answer the following questions:

  1. What observable behaviors or statements did the person perform or say?
  2. What is the most positive interpretation an outside witness would make? The most negative?
  3. What will you gain by interpreting the difficult person’s actions or words in as positive a light as possible?
  4. What would you do or say when you respond to the difficult person if you viewed his or her actions in a positive light? What is stopping you from responding this way?

Key Tactics

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Three strategies will help you gather facts and use targeted strategies to deal with the person or the situation.

Active Listening

The first tactic, and possibly the most important, is to listen empathetically, which is listening while trying to be sensitive to the various components and levels of the message. We’ve already learned some strategies in module four for active listening. In addition, try to listen for the following information:

  • The Why: Why is the person communicating with me?
  • The Length: What can the size of the message tell me about the importance of the message to the person?
  • The Words: Does the person use formal, aloof language? Impatience?
  • The Volume and Pace: What emotional pressures can be sensed?

Note taking after a Discussion

A second tactic is to write down your recollection of the discussion that just took place. The notes can be used to support your next communication with the difficult person. Note taking also gives you the opportunity to plan and organize before the next communication takes place.

Writing Your Communication

Putting your thoughts into writing has three important benefits:

  1. The difficult person cannot interrupt with an objection
  2. It’s easier to provide orderly communication in writing than in a discussion
  3. Written communication is pure; there is no body language to shape the outcome, reducing the possibility of mixed messages.

Case Study

Elis was accused of losing some important papers by her co-worker. She was called into her boss’s office to explain the situation. Her boss was sometimes a difficult person to work with when issues like this appeared. Elis listened to her boss and noted his volume, tone, and what type of language he was using. By sitting there and just listening it allowed her to think positively and have a clear picture of the situation. Elis finally explained that she was away for a couple of days on vacation and that there is no way that the papers were with her. In the end, it turned out that her co-worker was guilty for the loss of the documents.