Dealing with difficult people

    Business Spotlight Audio 9/2021
    A cactus dressed in a shirt and tie

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    Erin Perry: Welcome, Bob. Tell us, what do people normally mean when they say that a colleague or boss or employee is “difficult”?

    Bob Dignen: OK, well, to answer that, let me put on my coach hat because that’s where I spend a lot of time listening to people who tell me about other people who are difficult. And I have to say, when you hear that description of others as difficult, it’s really not clear. You have to to keep an open mindaufgeschlossen/vorurteilslos seinkeep an open mind. You know, the coacheeTeilnehmer(in) einer Coaching-Sitzungcoachee may be telling me genuinelyecht, aufrichtiggenuinely about people who are in some way difficult to handle. Difficult for different reasons: they’re rudeunhöflichrude, they’re offensivebeleidigend, kränkendoffensive. Or maybe they’re nice people but they just don’t deliver on time. They talk too much in meetings. They don’t talk enough in meetings. All that kind of stuff. You know, I’ve heard a lot of different complaints from people about other people. And yes, yeah, you have to admit some people are challenging to be around. 

    But there’s a big “but” here. When people say others are difficult, I always think that, fundamentally, they’re not describing other people. Fundamentally, they’re describing more about themselves: their needs, their values, which this other person is somehow ignoring and to trigger sth.etw. auslösentriggering a negative emotion. And then this person gets to be labelled as sth.als etw. abgestempelt werdenlabelled as “a problem”, as “difficult”, when in fact — and I think this is the key thing — if the person complaining had the communication or leadership skills to handle the situation, to handle the person, if they had more tolerance not to just label another person as “difficult”, then there might not be any difficulty at all.

    Perry: What can we do to improve the way we work with those we see as difficult?

    Dignen: Yeah, well, that’s the the million-dollar question (ifml.)die alles entscheidende Fragemillion-dollar question. And, of course, all of this is so situational. It’s very difficult to give specific answers which are going to apply in specific situations. So, if we talk about general solutions, I think two fundamental approaches to stand outauffallen, hervorstechenstand out. Firstly, we need to start with acceptance. You know, stop labelling people as “difficult”. Stop asking the other person to change to my way of doing things. You know, to engage with sth.sich auf etw. einlassenengage with their way. You know, learn from it. Practise what we say we believe about diversity: that it’s good, that we all need to live our different selves and we all need to engage with our different selves. This is ultimatelyletztendlichultimately a kind of flexibility. 

    So, that’s one thing, that as we complain about others as difficult, I think it signals we’ve stopped being flexible. Alternatively, you just have a conversation about your rules of engagement. How shall we do things together? What is good behaviour for us? How do we do meetings? How do we write emails? How good is the quality we deliver? Build a common culture. So, for me, you know, don’t complain about other people, don’t label them as “difficult”. Either look at yourself and try to to grow sth.hier: etw. entwickelngrow your level of acceptance or talk to the other person and co-create a reality which you could both live together. Those are the first two areas I explore with clients.

    Perry: Are there situations in which we need to take a stricter approach with difficult people?

    Dignen: I mean, absolutely. I think there are many situations where it is actually totally justified to become intolerant and to insist on certain forms of non-negotiable behaviour. For example, if it’s health and safety related: you know, zero tolerance. You cannot allow people to risk the health and safety of others. So, you see this a lot in construction and in the energy sector. Legal and financial compliance rules also demand total followership. 

    non-disclosure agreementGeheimhaltunsgvereinbarungNon-disclosure agreements will put directors in jail if they reveal sensitive market information. And even less serious behaviour, the ones we might see in our own teams: constantly to submit sth.etw. abgebensubmitting work below standard, constantly being slow to collaborate, to undermine sb.jmdn. schwächenundermining colleagues with gossipKlatsch, Geredegossip. I think it’s extremely important from a leadership perspective to deal very firmly with these behaviours early and openly as an overtoffenkundigovert non-acceptance of that behaviour. Because if you tolerate it, you’re basically on the route to toxic team.

    Perry: Finally, a personal question: what sort of people do you find it most difficult to work with?

    Dignen: It’s always interesting when you apply this to yourself. And to be honest, thinking about it, it’s not static. It’s changed over time, which probably means that I’ve changed over time, too. Because in my younger days, I think I was very to be sensitive to sb.hier: empfindlich auf jmdn. reagierensensitive to individuals who are very task oriented, very demanding of themselves, very critical of others. They were kind of scary (ifml.)unheimlichscary people to work with, very scary if they were customers and you had to please them. So, over time, however, I actually got to really like this kind of demanding person. In the end, I saw that they didn’t want to be critical of me. They just wanted to improve themselves and their situation. And actually, this kind of focused person is relatively easy to work with. 

    The people who are toughest now, I think, are the, what I would call highly independent and the highly unfocused people. People who don’t quite have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. And people who don’t quite know how to get to what they want to achieve. But who don’t respond well to structure or efforts to bring clarityKlarheitclarity because they feel they can do it themselves. 

    So, you know, this is a tough nut to crack: they’re fuzzyschwammig; hier: nicht leicht einzuordnenfuzzy, they’re independent but they don’t take advice well because they like to be fuzzy and they want to be independent. So, you know, collaborating with this kind of individual, I still struggle because I believe a lot in collaboration, I believe a lot in clarifying what we should do together. This is almost now a value for me, having worked with it for so many years. So, individuals who don’t to buy into sth.etw. akzeptierenbuy into that, yep, I still struggle with them.

    Perry: Thanks very much, Bob. We to look forward to sth.sich auf etw. freuenlook forward to talking to you again next time.

    Dignen: Thank you very much.

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