“The person who constantly angers you or frustrates you…controls you.” Colleen Kettenhofen
Do you know any difficult people? Have you ever worked or lived with a difficult person? Are YOU a difficult person?! It’s amazing how many participants in my leadership training will come up to me at the end of a program on, “Dealing with Difficult People,” or “Dealing with Difficult Employees,” and confide to me, “Colleen, I think sometimes I’m a difficult person and just realized it today!” Well, we can all be difficult people from time to time. But what do you do with the person who is chronically difficult? A key component to life balance is learning to deal with difficult people. There will always be difficult people. Here are three important points to remember.
1) All behavior has a positive intention – even with difficult people. 2) Low self-esteem is often at the root cause of why people are difficult. 3) You can’t always please everybody.
1) All behavior has a positive intention. Take for example the gossip. When someone comes into your office gossiping about everyone else, who are they trying to make look better? Themselves. That is their positive intention. As a matter of fact, while you are reading this article, what do you think the difficult people/gossips are doing in your office? Gossiping about YOU! I’m just kidding. Sort of.
I don’t think gossips realize that when they gossip to you about everyone else, you are probably thinking, “I wonder what they say about ME when I’m not around?” Remember, they have a positive intention. Strange as it may sound, they are trying to make themselves look better.
What about whiners and complainers? If someone comes to you complaining and whining about how much work they have to do, or how overloaded they are, what are they looking for? They’re looking for empathy, sympathy. Or, these difficult people are looking for you to do the work for them. That’s their positive intention. Now, we all have times when we’re overloaded and feeling overwhelmed. But I’m talking about the real whiners and complainers. Those you might label “emotional vampires” because they just suck the life out of you.
What about snipers? Believe it or not, even these difficult people have a positive intention. They are the difficult people who throw little digs your way in the hopes of rattling your cage and ruffling your feathers. What’s their positive intention? To make themselves look better. And, they think that by cutting you down, especially in front of others, that they’ll look better. For example, in an open work area, a sniper might walk by and within earshot of others say to you, “Well, there goes Shelly, on her 100th personal phone call of the day!” AND, you weren’t even on a personal phone call!
These snipers are the same difficult people who after cutting you down and insulting you, will say, “Oh, you just have no sense of humor.” They’re trying to put it all back on you. Really though it’s about them and their own insecurities. Which brings me to the second main point in dealing with difficult people.
2) Low self-esteem. A lot has been written and talked about regarding self-esteem and self-confidence. It almost seems ridiculous quite frankly. For example, every child on a team winning a trophy even though they were on the LOSING team. All in the name of “self-esteem.” And yet, a lot of difficult people do suffer from low self-esteem. Not always, but often.
Only one out of every three American adults has high self-esteem, and we’re a pretty positive culture. But, only one out of three adults really has high self-esteem. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I know it’s definitely not me!” That’s okay. It’s something you can work on. The point is, that with difficult people it’s not necessarily about you. You aren’t the problem. It’s about THEM. They’re the difficult person. (More later on making sure we’re not the difficult person!)
Low self-esteem often has its roots in childhood. It coulde be that the “difficult person” was teased by fellow classmates in school. This can result in one having a low opinion of themselves. You all know kids can be cruel. Sometimes it’s something a teacher or a parent said. Or being compared to Super Parent or a superstar sibling. Any number of things can cause low self-esteem. You don’t always know what’s going on with someone else and why they’re behaving the way they do.
Sometimes you can do all the right things and nothing works because they’re a difficult person who doesn’t want to change. Or, they haven’t been held accountable for needing to change. So remember, focus on the part you can control – you.
3) You’re not always going to please everyone. You won’t always please everybody so get rid of the notion that you will. We can’t always worry about what “everyone” else thinks of us.
Dr. Daniel Amen has what he calls the 18-40-60 rule. The 18-40-60 rule is: When you’re 18 years old, you worry about what everyone is thinking of you. When you’re 40, you don’t care anymore what everyone thinks of you. And when you’re 60, you realize nobody’s been thinking about you at all! How true is that?! The older we get we realize “everybody” isn’t thinking about us.
Also, don’t be a person who tends to dwell. For example, have you ever been in a situation where a week after your encounter with the difficult person you’re still stewing about them, thinking about them, and dissecting what was said? Remember, the person who constantly angers you…controls you.
Keep a pad of paper along with a pen in your car. Anytime you’re afraid you’re going to say something you’d regret, especially if you’re a manager or supervisor, go out to your car during a break. I realize many of you are so busy you don’t even know what a break is anymore! Seriously, though, write down everything you’d like to say, that you never could say. When you arrive home, tear it up, or burn it. Throw it away.
Be careful, too, of the words you use. Avoid absolutes. For example, don’t say, “You always” and “You never.” It will only put that difficult person further on the defensive. I once role played with a gentleman in one of my leadership trainings, and I said “John, you never do the work. You’re always expecting everyone around here to do your work!” He looked at me, pointed and said, “You sound like my wife!” Everyone roared with laughter.
Even major corporations have to be careful that their slogans get translated properly into foreign languages. For example, it’s been said that Pepsi’s “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” translated into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave” in Chinese. Frank Perdue’s chicken slogan, “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken,” was translated into Spanish as, “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate!”
In conducting leadership training, especially when discussing dealing with difficult people or difficult employees, I sometimes have my participants take the following pledge.
“On my honor, I promise, when dealing with a difficult person, that I will bite my tongue and count to 10. Because if I don’t, I may say something that I will LIVE to regret!”