Virtually every one of my clients over the years has brought up the subject of dealing with difficult people. There’s no escaping the fact that they come into everyone’s life at one time or another.
Sometimes they come in the form of an unhappy or hard-to-get-along-with client, customer, or co-worker. Sometimes they’re a person we report to and sometimes it’s someone who reports to us.
Whoever they are, they can cause anxiety, frustration, concern, and anger. It can even cause us to become like them – someone difficult to deal with.
One way to deal with a difficult person is to avoid them altogether. But often we don’t have that option. The difficult person is someone we simply have to deal with. Most people would say that in those situations, we have three options:
1) Try to change yourself; 2) Try to change the other person, and; 3) Resolve to tolerate the situation.
I’d like to suggest that there’s a fourth, more effective option.
Let’s spend some time discussing these four options.
Option 1: Try to change yourself
Your first instinct might be, “Why should I be the one to change?” Often, we aren’t the catalyst for their behavior, but sometimes we are. If you’ve had people in your life who cause you to become difficult or obstinate, then doesn’t it stand to reason that you may be causing that same reaction in someone?
It’s in situations like this that we have to examine our own behaviors and reflect on whether we’re the cause. Frequently, we’re blind to our own actions. We don’t see what we’re not getting.
How do you find out whether you’re the cause of the other person’s difficult behavior? Option 4 holds the answer.
Option 2: Try to change the other person
In Option 1 our initial response was to ask, “Why should I be the one to change?” Basically saying, “I’m not the one with the problem.” Guess what happens when we try to change the other person?
You got it. They have the same reaction we would have had. Everyone feels justified in their behavior. No one intends to behave arbitrarily or irrationally.
We always have a reason for acting the way we do. Attempting to force the other person to change just doesn’t work. (Just ask any spouse!) No one will change anything about themselves until and unless they choose to do so. Option 4 holds the answer.
Option 3: Decide to put up with them
“Tolerate it.” “Just deal with it.” The only thing that accepting things the way they are accomplishes is to postpone a confrontation.
Although this course of action (or inaction) appears to avoid a confrontation, in fact what it does is eliminate any chance of dialogue and replaces it with a certain, even greater confrontation down the road. Even though this path is frequently taken, it has some far-reaching unhappy consequences.
One consequence is that you end up spending valuable energy by deciding to tolerate this person. It takes energy to tolerate a poor situation – energy you need for other, more positive and productive efforts.
In addition, by tolerating this person, your attitude suffers. Although we decide to tolerate it, we don’t ignore it. Tolerating someone’s behavior reduces our level of energy, impacts our attitude, and is counter-productive.
Option 4: Work to understand their motivation
Option 4 is the key to success. This option is about being a leader and being an effective communicator.
It’s about being compassionate and strong at the same time. It’s about being good for someone rather than being good to them. It’s about understanding rather than confronting.
This solution is about taking the time to understand the other person’s motivation for acting the way they do. If you’re effective at this, you’ll be able to either help them change their perspective on things or, in the alternative, help them to move on to something that better suits them.
This solution is about helping people grow and maximizing their talents.
How do you come to understand the motivation for their actions and attitude? Just ask. Ask why they act the way they do. Usually they’ll be more than happy to tell you.
If their answer seems odd or incorrect you need to keep asking questions to get at the heart of the issue so you can either shift their perspective or help them move on. Once you’re at the core issue you have the ability to make a difference in their life.
It’s amazing what can come out of a sincere desire to help. How would you have felt if, at those times when you felt complacent with a poor attitude, someone took the time to listen to you and offer some other perspectives?
How would your life be different today if someone had helped you see yourself and/or your life differently? As a leader, you have the ability to make a difference in the lives of those around you.
Michael Beck is a Portland-based executive coach, business strategist, and author of leadership book, "Eliciting Excellence."