I have managed enough teams and close relationships to know that sometimes you have got to have a strategy for dealing with dificult people and strong conflicts. Sometimes these can simply come from the situational stress or high emotions that are present, but sometimes, people and situations can just become dificult regardless. This is made all the more dificult when dealing with people who do not share the same understanding around mutual respect or sensitivity. Strategies that stop the situation from escalating are invaluable.
Firstly, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Sometimes people are just down right awkward and dificult to work with and be around. You would avoid them if you had a choice, so what can you do?
- Take care of yourself first. You stand a much better chance of remaining well balanced and able to deal with it if you are in the right place mentally. Getting enough exercise, sleep and personal space will help prevent you from reaching your limit. Cross the limit and we experience the ‘fight or flight’ defence reaction that is associated with stress. It’s best to avoid reaching those levels. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson advises:
Also see how taking care of yourself has good ripple effects for others. Deliberately do a small thing that feeds you — a little rest, some exercise, some time for yourself — and then notice how this affects your relationships. Notice how healthy boundaries in relationships helps prevent you from getting used up or angry and eventually needing to withdraw.
Caution: If your need is ‘to be right’ about something, or show the difficult person the error of their ways, stop and find a better way. See below on how to ‘argue in constructive ways’.
- Stop trying to change or fix the person. Often we waste loads of time and energy wishing that things ought to be different. Having an ideal that we judge the situation by, is not going to always help and the other person is going to sense your disappointment and that will only make them more guarded. You are probably measuring them by your own ideal or someone else you wish they would be like.
When this person is speaking, try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or even with attempts to try to get him or her to see things from a different, perhaps more positive point of view. Instead, try to paraphrase back to the person the points you think he or she is making, and acknowledge the emotions he or she seems to be expressing. For instance, if he seems ticked off about something, you might say, “It sounds like that really makes you angry.” In this way, you let them know that their experience matters.
- Keep them busy with a job to do. Often conflict can arise from insecurity and a need to be recognised or fulfilled. If you give them specific jobs to be getting on with, and even better if it makes them have to think about others and what their needs and concerns are. When people are busy and engaged, they have less desire to be obstructive just for the sake of it. When asking people to take on a role, don’t forget to explain the WHY of the task. When we are given a reason or purpose for doing something – firstly, we are much more likely to do it – secondly we put our heart into it. Research has show that by simply adding the word because into a request, automatic compliance was triggered.
- Argue constructively. This is a phrase that sounds at odds but best described by the philosopher Daniel Dennett to demonstrate how we can effectively exchange views and arguments with the potential to succeed. This is especially relevant when dealing with family or colleagues whom you have no authority over. You first need to listen and seek to understand your dificult person’s standpoint. From his book The Art of Conversation:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.