How to Deal with Difficult People: The Leader is Not the One Who Yells the Loudest

Posted by in Books, How the Top 10% Do It!, Self-Management Strategies for Optimal Performance

It is important to ask yourself this question: “Are there any occasions where you are tempted to become a difficult person?”

In any situation, it is important to be able to manage our perceptions. For instance, someone who is high on the agreeable scale may perceive someone who is being assertive for their own cause to be aggressive. Let’s assume that we are to rate our communication process on a scale of one to one-hundred. On this scale, if you are an aggressive communicator, you would rate at or near one-hundred. If you are assertive, your communication style would be near the fifty mark. And an agreeable person would rate at the lower end of the scale. Keep in mind that this rating however would fluctuate, because no one is a single way all the time.

If you are highly agreeable, on this same scale of one to one-hundred, you are at twenty-five or lower, and if the person that you are dealing with responds to you as assertive (fifty), though they are simply being assertive but you might see them as aggressive. Let’s assume that you are dealing with someone who is rated at an eighty, and you are a twenty on the scale; you would probably feel anxious, even cornered. If you are very high on the agreeable scale, you might feel nervous and anxious in anticipation of a confrontation to come. To someone who is highly agreeable, anything more than an agreeable reception or reaction from others can be very stressful. If your social anxiety and stress become too much, and your communication style doesn’t serve you, then it is important to incrementally move yourself towards becoming more assertive.

In my experience, it is easier for a highly aggressive person to moderate their communication style because they get into trouble when others become fed up with being around them. On the other hand, almost no one gets mad at a nice person!

Step one in the process of dealing with difficult people is to establish the types of personalities involved. Let me give you a personal example: My partner is quite agreeable. I emailed him early this morning and asked him for a favor. I requested (and I always tell people they can say no to me without any kind of retribution or resentment) that he meet me at a hardware store so that I could pick out some new faucets. After waiting almost all day and not hearing back from him, I wondered if he hadn’t responded because he didn’t want to meet me there, but because of his agreeableness, he would find it stressful to say no to me. I understand that it might take him a couple more years to believe that there really are no negative consequences to saying no to me!

"Say NO to Me!" front cover book

I have noticed that when I ask him to do something that he doesn’t want to do, he will chuckle and make a non-definitive (but nice) comment. I interpret that as a no. This is still effective communication because we still understand and accept each other’s communication style. He feels understood because I have no agenda for him to change, and still I take care of myself. I will make two clear requests, and if I do not receive a clear response, I simply go about getting what I need to be done some other way, usually by myself, or by putting it on a ‘to do’ list, or paying someone to have it done. This process means no mess, no fuss, and no resentment. Having those requests completed by my partner is the small picture; having a supportive relationship is the big, more important picture. To an agreeable person, someone who reacts in what appears to be an aggressive manner could very well be the trigger for them to feel unsafe.

For step two, let’s say you’re talking to a person who is highly reactive and responds on a scale of one to one-hundred as an eighty; this person is being disagreeable or difficult true to his or her fashion. In this situation, it is important that you set boundaries. This is a great idea in principle, but it is difficult to do for someone who is agreeable. One example of setting a personal boundary is to say, “No more; this kind of interaction doesn’t work for me.” My agreement with my partner is that if I don’t hear a definite yes or no I will just do what I want to do and then he has no reason to complain about my decision. There’s no anger between us, because we have an explicit agreement about this which, in and of itself, is a boundary. Setting a boundary is to say what you are willing to do or not do; what you are willing to accept or not accept; what you are willing to tolerate or not tolerate. When it comes to choosing a significant other, it seems to be that an agreeable person and an assertive person are often matched, so it is imperative to work out a communication process for the long term.

A desperately needed, but sorely missed, skill in this society is the ability to create and voice healthy, respectful boundaries when we feel compromised. If you cannot create your own boundaries, then you are destined to live with whatever boundaries someone else draws for you and whatever comes to you. If when you can establish your own boundaries infractions will still occur, but you don’t have to accept them. You get to have a voice and a vote. Creating a boundary is scary because we risk confrontation, and for most people, even those who are aggressive, one of the biggest risks is confrontation because it comes with a high degree of the unknown. Aggressive people dislike confrontation as much as anyone else, and that may be part of why they are aggressive: so, that they can control when and how the confrontation will occur. We all have a voice and a vote—assertive people can use 100% of their vote, be it a yes or a no!  Agreeable people, at the outset anyway, have only one vote—yes.

When dealing with difficult people, please understand that it is an emotional minefield for both of you. The typical response to negative feelings is to lash out and retaliate; remember the amygdala? We can thank that little gland for our defensive habits.

When we act out of fear, we create or exacerbate the emotional minefield. That is dangerous because someone needs to oversee the solution. The first person to step into this role usually takes the leadership position. This person is the one who seeks first to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view. If you’ve ever read Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Successful People, one of the key elements he writes about is to seek first to understand. When we do that, we can put our anxiety and frustration aside and stay encouragingly present for the others involved. The neutral person will be able to think, I wonder what is causing this? I wonder what this person is feeling?

I have a belief that helps me work with people who react on all spectrums between aggressive and assertive: I believe that every person I meet with is either happy, sad, or mad, and probably has three personal problems that they are struggling with. As soon as one problem is solved the other one takes over; some days, the three problems become too much for one person, and all hell breaks loose—someone blows a gasket! When I meet someone, who is aggressive, by utilizing this belief I’m able to be much more tolerant, and, before I react with defensiveness, ask myself, I wonder what three burdens they have that are causing them to be difficult? This one simple question allows the calming power of compassion to work its magic on the situation. The leader is not the one who yells the loudest; they are the one who focuses on finding a respectful solution. Good leadership can alter the course of the conversation from an angry outburst to a positive, more respectful outcome!

When we seek first to understand, it saves us from making rash decisions. When we seek to understand, we can be neutral. But it’s hard to be neutral if our emotions are triggered. Although in primitive times, seeking to understand the other was counterintuitive to our instinct for survival.  This is now and to survive is not the goal…it is to thrive and no one can thrive without the input of others. Even solitary holy men meditating on the mountain tops of India need someone to bring them food and water!

Compassion for others, especially strangers, is a learned response and it is based on a desire to deal with others with equanimity and grace. It is the courageous response. Courage is not something that flows through our veins; courage is a decision that we make just before we react.

As challenging as it is to do, it is important to encourage those people that appear to be difficult to tell us about how the encounter looked from their point of view. We want to know:

  • What was it like?
  • What happened?
  • What were the consequences?
  • What are their feelings and/or frustrations?
  • Why are they being difficult (from your perception)?
  • What is the solution?
  • Whose help do they need?

When we maintain neutrality, we are better able to brainstorm with one another and find a solution more efficiently. When we act out of our frustration and anger, the problem escalates and the solution is less equitable for both parties. Keep in mind that if there is a serious breach of service, your clients might request something extra to make up for any inconvenience. A good negotiator will assume this is the case and have a concession already available. If it is not needed, you will not be any further behind; if it is needed your preparation will only enhance your professionalism.

The next stage is to agree on what steps to take. It is important to note that you cannot get to this stage if you’ve been defensive, or if you have indulged in defensiveness by justifying during the time it took for you to understand the situation. You must follow up with the other person to make sure that the steps agreed upon are in place, and that when you shake hands, you either agree to work together, or you agree to work apart. Sometimes you need to agree to disagree because some situations simply cannot be solved. Sometimes clients’ requests or expectations are unrealistic. The operating intention is to have a win-win outcome. An issue must be important for someone to become committed and passionate about it. Success flows where passion grows.

It would be interesting if we could all become aware of the times that we are difficult people, either passively or aggressively.

Being agreeable does not mean that you will never be perceived as being difficult to others. People on either side of the scale can be difficult, and when we are aware of that, we are better able to hold our own counsel and not judge other people any more harshly than we judge ourselves.

When dealing with disagreeable people, it may be really tempting to complain bitterly to someone else. Think of it as a bad cold virus…by complaining, you are dumping it on someone else and making them sick, too. When we relate our stories about difficult people or clients to someone else, we steal their peace of mind and give them our frustrations; it’s a win-lose transaction.

In addition, please don’t try to vindicate yourself by telling other people about how difficult or nasty these people or customers were for you to deal with. It is not easy to refrain from venting to others, but becoming a complainer is not the answer. If venting and complaining is your instinct, you should work hard to become aware of it, and try to improve 1% at a time.

It’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow morning with all the answers as to how we will shift from where we are now to where we want to be; from agreeable to assertive. We do the best we can for today, with an agreement to improve our approach to others. That is good enough.

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming publication:

How the Top 10% Do It 3D front cover book

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Sara Haynes, P. Eng.
Sigma Solutions

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