Dealing with Difficult People – the Dos and Don’ts
Unless you’ve spent a sizeable chunk of your life living under a rock in some remote and desolate part of the world, you have undoubtedly found yourself in the situation where you’ve had to contend with difficult people far more times than you’d care to count. If you happen to work in customer support, then dealing with ticked-off people is, quite literally, your bread and butter. But even in pretty much any other line of work, or in school, or under the most common everyday circumstances, you are guaranteed to at least occasionally encounter people who are behaving irrationally or aggressively, and sometimes these encounters can occur at an alarming rate.
Being able to effectively maneuver these situations is a vital self-preservation skill because they can sometimes leave lasting consequences if not handled properly. This holds particularly true when you need to deal with difficult people in your work surroundings, because those potentially lasting aftereffects can also carry a financial connotation.
Difficult behavior at work can take numerous forms – the person in question might be unable to meet deadlines, they may be unwilling to cooperate, or they may even sabotage you intentionally, act in an overtly confrontational manner, or attempt to pin their failures on you. Either way, having to deal with a coworker acting in a severely unprofessional manner is bad enough as it is, but things take on a whole new level of dread when the person acting like a petulant child happens to hold a position of higher authority compared to you.
What to Do
Even though work-related confrontations are what we’ve primarily had in mind when writing this text, these unfortunate occurrences can also take place virtually anywhere else – in your household, when you’re having a get-together with your friends, while you’re driving (the infamous road rage), basically in any location occupied by at least two people. It doesn’t matter where they happen, these events are always bound to raise stress levels through the roof. This is why it is of such paramount importance to always come equipped with a couple of techniques which can be used to deescalate matters before things get too out of hand.
Conflict resolution is a topic which has been given a great deal of attention in recent times, and what follows is a handpicked list of tips and techniques which ought to provide the very best results when one faces adversities of this nature. Bear in mind that not every solution is applicable to any given situation and you will need to make decisions on a case-by-case basis (for example, it is hugely important whether you’re dealing with someone you know or a complete stranger). However you should be able to find at least a couple of suggestions which will help take the edge off whatever conflict you’ve found yourself a part of.
- Employ Empathy
Empathy represents the ability to share another person’s feelings and view things from their perspective – in other words, it’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When it comes to deescalating conflicts, you may or may not feel sympathy for whatever plight has caused the other person to lash out at you, however you should still make every attempt to look at the situation from their point of view because that is the quickest way to figure out where all the angst is coming from. Once you know the root of the problem, you’ll be in the best possible position to propose a satisfactory solution – you’ll either be glad you’ve helped the person, or you’ll be glad they’re out of your hair. Either way, the conflict will have been resolved.
As to how you can establish empathy with a person who’s being difficult, the one golden rule is to really listen. Even if you don’t end up thinking of a viable solution, simply feeling heard and acknowledged is often quite enough to calm things down to a manageable level. Also, remember to look at the broader context – there is always an underlying reason for any type of behavior, you just need to remember and put in the effort to look for it.
- Tackle the Issue, Avoid Judging the Person
The fact that someone is acting in a difficult manner does not have to indicate that the person is always unpleasant to be around – most likely, they’re simply having a bad day because of some specific reason. By focusing on the person, instead of on the problem, you are likely to only exacerbate matters by further antagonizing said individual. In his book, “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People”, Preston Ni states that being tough on the person rather the issue is a surefire way to anger your interlocutor and evoke feelings of resentment, among other negative consequences(1).
Therefore, in order to maximize your chances of solving a difficult situation in a painless manner, make sure to set your sights on the issue at hand – you can’t change a person who is set in their ways, but you may be able to fix this one particular problem.
- Don’t Bark Out Orders
Another point made in the book referenced previously is that using “you” language plus directives (sentences such as “You have to do this…”) creates a fertile ground for defensiveness and conflict. Nobody likes to be ordered around, particularly when they’re worked up, so it’s wise to refrain from such phrases when dealing with a tricky situation.
- Set Boundaries
There is a world of difference between lending a sympathetic ear and allowing yourself to be treated like a doormat. If an angry person senses an opportunity to vent, they’ll most likely take it, and this will just make you upset as well, without getting you anywhere closer to a resolution. Therefore, you need to be helpful, but you also need to know where to draw the line.
- Be Wary of Humor
A well-placed joke can immediately defuse the hostility of a situation, but it can also backfire and make matters infinitely worse if the other person feels ridiculed. Therefore, unless you’re 100% sure it’s going to work, stay away from jokes, particularly when dealing with people you don’t know well.
- Walk Away, if You Can
When someone is acting in a difficult manner, your first instinct may be to try and set them straight. However, not every battle is worth fighting, and sometimes you might be better off just leaving it be. If nothing else, walk away for a while and take a breather – perhaps things will cool down in the meantime.
Dealing with difficult people is an unfortunate, but ever-present, aspect of everyday life. Hopefully, this text has given you a few tactics you’ll be able to employ, but if you only come away with one thing, let it be to remember to listen – more often than not, the other person will tell you what they need to hear.