Dealing with Difficult People

"There is a popular saying that "Most people leave companies not because of anything but mostly due to their bad bosses.” 

Many of us at times encounter difficult people in our lives. Many times, we ignore them or keep them at bay. Nevertheless, there may be a few people who are important stakeholders in our lives that need to be dealt with without having the option of being ignored. It is at these moments of dealing with them that creates uncertainty and insecurity, and at times a lot of stress and other unpleasant offshoots take off. If the dealing is not successful, then undesirable consequences ensue. Take the case of a nasty boss or a creepy colleague who is an important partner in a project at work. It is quite obvious that dealing with them successfully can make a world of positive changes in our lives. More careers in organizations have been abruptly truncated, derailed, or mangled, mostly because of bad bosses (as perceived by the subordinate) than of the organization itself. Therefore, the ability to deal with difficult people is a very crucial skill needed to navigate for anyone aspiring to be at the helm. 

If you ponder the dynamics of dealing with difficult people, the enigma is in the approach. “How to deal with difficult people and come out with a workable relationship while maintaining dignity and self-worth in the process of establishing it?” is the golden question many probably don’t have a tangible and practical answer for. This article tries to arrive at a feasible template for a viable solution adoptable by anyone who is serious about overcoming this particular “difficult people” challenge. 

There are a few important concepts that need to be marked as cornerstones and further internalized before adopting an approach to dealing with them. The approach’s objective is to have a successful transaction with the difficult person in order to establish a good rapport and build a cordial relationship that grows from strength to strength. 

Also, the context here is that the difficult person that is being referred to is a universal person, a common man who is already in our lives irrespective of age, status, relationship, or position with regard to us. The person can be your sibling, boss, peer, high-value client, or anyone with influence in your scheme of life. 

The first concept that is to be understood is “all are not the same.” There is diversity in unity. 

Everyone has had his or her own experiences and battles that have put in place a perceptual “lens” that he or she has put on through which the world is seen and related. His or her outward behavior is the net aggregation of his or her kinesthetic experiences and inner battles. Interestingly, benchmarks are set and maps are drawn in our internal world as we start to live life. Constant comparison to the preconceived benchmarks with the subject in consideration (the subject can be a person, a process, or a simple exigency) makes us communicate in a particular way with the subject, both verbally and otherwise. For example, some people converse with bearers at a cheap eatery in comparison to bearers at a posh restaurant. We would have noticed the difference well. 

In fact, the paradigm that not all are the same can be tweaked to “NOT EVEN one is like the other” in any sense, at least in the mind-makeup amongst other constitutions. If this precept is realized, then the stage is set for understanding the complexities of dealing with difficult people. What both your close friend and you feel on a common issue may not be exactly the same can be quoted as an example for highlighting the precept that none is like the other. Many of us would have witnessed that perceptions amongst even the dearest friends are sometimes close to being the same, sometimes completely opposite. The internalization of the fact that not all are the same and that everyone has his or her own lens, their own demons, and battles to fight is a very important precept in the framework of dealing with people. 

Our backgrounds determine our internal battles

Backgrounds need not all be negative. A child from an opulent household may have a different internal battle compared to a child from a low-income household. The backgrounds may be uncommon, but the battles are common phenomena. The battle for the opulent child might be the desire to have more of their parents' time, while the other child's battle may be the desire to have more toys and ice cream. That is why it is important to reinforce the understanding that our relationships with others are the product of our kinesthetic experiences and our internal battles. 

The reason we feel some people are genuinely pleasant to speak with while others are seasonally pleasant or mostly unpleasant is because their outward behaviors are nothing but products of the abstraction of our own kinesthetic experiences and internal battles. The acknowledgement of the dissimilar dispositions of others because of their internal hustles is one of the cornerstones of understanding the process of dealing with people. This understanding gives rise to “empathy” for others. 

Empathy is the second concept

Once conceived towards others, it puts us in an observant mode that facilitates “listening” to understand and “speaking” to be understood. Meaningful conversations happen de facto. Reaction is replaced by "response,” and the tonality of our voice starts to represent our intent in understanding and makes the other person feel heard. A rapport is built in the process. It is easy to visualize or relate to this phenomenon, particularly when the other person is a bit lower than us in power or authority. Now, what happens when the other difficult person is your loud-mouthed cynical boss or someone higher up (“cynical" in your opinion of him/her based on your “lens”) The approach is just the same: empathy first. Display empathy, but with appropriate body language that facilitates rapport creation. An accent is a way to send the right message of willingness (on your side) to strike a rapport. During the interaction with such powerful people, listening to observe the words, the tonality, the pauses, the derision (if any), and the gestures without subscribing to the emotional overtones and connotations in them is vital. Non-subscription happens only if we understand that the manifestation of this behavior is due to the “lens'' worn by the aggressor, as described earlier. 

The behavioral manifestation surfaces perhaps as aggression, cynicism, bitterness, pessimism, sarcasm, derision, etc. Understanding this behavioral manifestation without subscription is “empathy” in action, to be precise. Empathy ushers in calmness and results in well-measured transactions. If empathy is established, then the effect of negativity will not be impacting us. The difficult person’s anger or loudness will not be seeded in us and hence will not manifest in us as panic, anxiety, stuttering or raging heartbeats, or overall uneasiness. The anger and loud voice of the aggressor will evaporate into thin air without affecting us a bit. “Calmness” manifests, and that is the third concept. Staying calm on volition strengthens listening. 

Since the emotional entanglement is null because of empathy, “meta-thinking” happens, and consequently, reaction is replaced by “response” that is purely original and authentic. 

Meta-thinking is the thinking of what is being thought in any particular situation or even when there is no situation. Furthermore, monitoring what is going on inside is "self-calibration,” which is very important for positioning for higher performance. 

Now, a calm and earnest response from you invokes a productive state of mind in the other person, resulting in meta-thinking in the other person that might warrant a change in his or her subsequent response. Whatever the change in his or her response, empathy-driven calmness firmly sustains us as a virtue. Internalization of this virtue helps to foster a great rapport with the difficult person. With prudent patience and time, the rapport could augment into a great camaraderie. 

It has to be mentioned that it is erroneous for people to imagine that empathetic listening is a sign of assent to being gullible, vulnerable, and hence susceptible to manipulation. However, the truth is just the opposite. An empathetic listener is in a higher energy state while remaining unassociated with the emotional disposition of the other person. He is in full control of the conversation and understands where it is heading. He is empowered to navigate the conversation in a different direction and turf if needed. Listening to a distressed boy can be quoted as an example of empathetic listening. Empathetic listening, in fact, facilitates a lot of leverage for quality communication and can pave the way for meaningful conversations that mutually enrich both parties involved. To be an empathetic listener, it is important for our lens to be clear so that the disposition is non-judgmental but unbiased. Great conversations happen with clear lenses on both sides or at least a clear lens on one side. 

To sum up, it is important to have a non-judgmental disposition in general by having a clear ‘lens' that shows things as is, without any bias or presupposition. This actually helps to cut a lot of clutter and emotional overload due to overthinking and inept inferences. Empathize with people or processes by leveling up to them and aligning with them by naturally donning hats of calmness and positivity while being confronted. Great relationships can be fostered if we follow this approach. 

If the skill to deal with difficult people is habituated, then success in higher echelons is just a matter of time. 

About the Author:  

Prof.(Dr) Narendranath Uppala is an exponent across multiple domains with profound international experience. The areas of expertise are Business, Business Communication, Enterprise-wide Risk Management, Academic Management, Leadership Coaching, Human Capital Development, Linguistics, Sales & Marketing and ERP. He is an International Speaker and speaks often on Business, Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Transactional Analysis, Communication Strategies, Risk Management, Academic Research on many National and International forums. 

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