There are times when we don’t put our best foot forward. As a matter of fact, sometimes we really foul up and behave badly – leading others to shrink away or withdraw and curse us. Not every person on this planet is a joy to work with, and we all have our share of difficult people on our teams. And sometimes, if we’re honest, we can BE the difficult person on our team! But no matter if you’ve found yourself blowing your top at someone, or getting into a yelling match, or even just quietly manipulating and tearing down another co-worker, chances are you’ve made a misstep at one time or another, and lived to regret it.
I certainly have. One person in my last job was notorious for being ‘difficult’ and I could feel hairs on the back of my neck start to stand up as I walked to meetings with him. It was an especially weird feeling because dreading an uncomfortable confrontation is not my usual M.O. I’m the kind of person who usually has no trouble diffusing tension, but after one or two meetings where voices were raised, I started to worry. Knowing that anything (bad) could happen in a meeting put me off my normal rhythm and made me doubt myself.
It can happen to anyone, and often does. But if you’ve found yourself thinking back on your day and feeling that you’ve exhibited two or three too many of these behaviors, it may do you some good to think about putting some new strategies in place for dealing with difficult people in your day to day work. Because if you’re blowing your top and then trying to disappear into the floor on a daily basis, then you can probably use some new tricks for defusing tough situations and getting these strained relationships functioning again.
This is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s a good idea not to take any action when you’re angry or frustrated, so take a little time, if you can, and get some distance between you and the person that is causing the situation. Don’t assume that you can devise a clear, cogent plan of action while you’re still fuming. Sleep on it, or have a break over some tea, and make sure you can get calmed down before deciding on a course of action. Think about this time as breaking the cycle of reacting to the other person and allowing yourself to think clearly.
Get a 3rd party report
A fresh set of eyes on the situation can help clarify what’s really going on and make sure that you’re seeing the real situation, and not a wrong impression. Is there someone else at the office who has seen the exchange happen, and can offer their perspective on what is happening in critical moments?
There are a few warnings here, though:
1. You want to make sure to pick a reliable narrator, whose judgement is sound.
2. You will want to be brutally honest with the person you speak to, since any bias you give them may be tough for them to navigate, especially if they were not involved with the other person or situation.
3. Don’t go looking for a fellow complainer who will just agree with you. Running to a co-worker and having a tear-down session with them is probably not going to get anything resolved, even if it makes you feel better initially. Solutions take work, and taking the easy way out can turn around and bite you. So stay positive about getting a fair report from someone else.
Add real perspective
With your 3rd party report in hand, now try to see the long-term view of the situation. Just how important is the disagreement? Will one outcome over another really make any difference in the long run? Is the conflict just all about style or is there something deeper that could be addressed? That person I had trouble connecting with in my last job just needed some more face-time with me to start to develop trust. It seemed that the only interactions we ever had were in short, high-pressure meetings, and so we could never get on the same page and be helpful to each other. I arranged a few no-pressure get-togethers, and as soon as we had shared some down time over a coffee, we both relaxed and were able to more easily see where the other person was coming from.
An extra bonus of this tactic is that sometimes you can realize that the problem is you! We all have bad days and moods, and spending time considering your situation can sometimes point you back to your own habits. If you feel like you’re turning into a monster every time you interact with a co-worker, you’ll want to spend some time thinking the reasons through.
Practice not engaging
Sometimes we feel like the other person in a heated exchange somehow has the power to make us react.
I feel like a stupid toy robot, where he just pops a quarter into my slot and I start going at it! Why do I let this person have so much power over me?
But the truth is that we have more power and control than we give ourselves credit for. In these situations we have to train ourselves to slow down our initial response enough to make a different decision in the heat of the moment. It’s self-reflection, pure and simple, but we don’t often give ourselves the opportunity to do it when we’re under pressure. But if someone is turning up the heat on you, the best reaction might be to say to yourself (or indeed to everyone else as well) “Let’s slow down for a second. I might need a minute to think this through.” By asking for a time-out, you can avoid plunging ahead, and instead consider your options and the circumstances surrounding you.
When someone seems like they are just trying to push your buttons, it might be true. Maybe they are. But people can also come across as aggressive when they are worried that they are losing, or not being respected, or feeling ineffective. In these situations it only takes a moment to consider why they are doing what they’re doing. And when you try to take someone else’s perspective, you’re almost certain to stop feeling that urgent need to respond immediately. Spending some time with my co-worker, I got to see how frustrated he was with his role in the company, and see how that helplessness was seeking an outlet in some of his behavior. When you pause to understand, you give yourself a chance to see more possibilities for resolution, and make better decisions.
Have the talk
If you still feel that this person is not getting it, and you feel you’re in the right to work it out with them, then you’ll need to have a face-to-face meeting, where you can put your concerns out on the table and work together to get to a resolution. Many people are not comfortable with confrontation or conflict, but there are ways to be direct and constructive at the same time. Try to focus on having a conversation, rather than a confrontation, but resist the urge to avoid discussing what’s causing the trouble. See if you can find some win-win situation with the other person, where you both can get to the bottom of what’s needed to move forward. Don’t feel that you have to go it alone, however, and in some cases a common friend or an understanding HR person can be a real help in keeping the conversation direct, fair, and productive.
Let It Go
Sometimes you do have to let your pride go, and just accept that some difficult people are going to be difficult. And unless you’re willing to walk away from your job over it, you might be forced to wait them out. In this extreme case, it can help to try to limit your exposure to the person, and continue to step away, if possible, when they start in on you. Eventually, they might get the hint that they are not using a winning strategy, and then you may have a chance get things straightened out.
The guy with whom I had the conflict in my last job? He left the company shortly after I made peace with him. By that time, I could truly say that I would miss him. (But I may have been the only one!)
In order to have a strong and attractive personal brand, we need to be able to handle conflict, even with extra-difficult people. Hopefully these strategies may help you the next time you run into that one person at work who seems to make everything harder than it has to be!
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