Face Difficult People at Work? Here Are 5 Strategic Ways to Deal With Them
Avoiding them does not solve the problema
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There is no way to avoid encountering difficult people on a professional level. Whether it is a co-worker, partner or shareholder in your company, or a difficult customer/client; there are people who are impossible to please. Unfortunately, you cannot avoid professional conflict or difficult people, and they present a unique opportunity that will test your tolerance and patience.
A few years ago, I was contracted for six weeks by a private client in late November. During our tenure, Christmas happened to fall on the same day as our scheduled meeting, so I assumed that due to the holidays, we would postpone our meetings until the new year. I was completely surprised when the client left a scathing message about my "lack of professionalism and consideration for our contract and obligations" for not attending the meeting on Christmas Day.
I was in shock that my professional character was questioned for celebrating a global holiday with family, but I jumped to conclusion that the client would understand my observances. But it is normal when someone is committed to creating a contentious environment.
Every leader has encountered or will encounter difficult people. Unfortunately, it is a true test of any effective leader. However, rather than working diligently to avoid the conversation, there are five strategic ways to deal with difficult people.
1. Set the ground rules for amicable and appropriate engagement
Those who are difficult to work with may cross your personal or professional boundaries. As a great judge of character, you can determine if the other party may potentially create an uncomfortable professional relationship. You must set the ground rules in advance for future engagement.
2. Create an agenda and time limit for all meetings
Open ended discussions can lead to a loss of time and a deterioration of a productive relationship. If you have a meeting with a difficult individual or party, the best way to assure that you remain on task is by creating a timed agenda for engagement. There will be moments in the meeting that may go off script, but remain calm and only reply to the outline of the agenda.
3. Speak up
If it becomes unbearable, it may be time to discuss your expectations to continue the engagement. Keep in mind, the best way to avoid conflating imperative issues is by issuing a statement in writing. In addition, I add it as a rider to our contract as a way to create a record of how to proceed with meaningful dialogue, as necessary.
4. Clarity is key
Never "dance" around the issues due to the fear of conflict. This may also create the illusion that you are the difficult one, when in fact, this is a matter of protecting the integrity of a productive relationship moving forward. Be clear and direct about the expected outcome of further communication.
5. Learn more
I have encountered difficult people over the course of my life, who have valid reasons for their inability to work well with others, mostly stemming from past professional trust issues. Rather than reacting to their divisiveness, there may be value in learning about past encounters that have lead to it.