Dancing with Difficult People
It’s hard to like everyone, don't you agree? Some colleagues are great partners. We know their style and communicate easily with them. We “dance well together.” With others we always seem to be out of step. We wonder, How can they be that way? or What makes them tick? Or worse--we don’t care; we just want to be as far away as possible.
The problem is we still have to work with these people, and our reactivity in their presence gives them power. Although counterintuitive, when you seek to understand your opponent, you begin to take power back. At worst, you learn something. At best, you turn the opponent into an ally, improve the quality of the work environment, and remove your hot buttons.
But how do you actually do it?
I find it helps to change my mind. I decide to get curious. I ask myself questions about who they are and why they behave as they do. For example:
#1) Who is this person away from the workplace?
See the different parts of your opponent – the parent, grandparent, friend, or loved one (of someone!). When you're in conflict, you only see the conflict part.
- Widen your perspective.
- Engage them in conversation about a favorite pastime or person in their life.
- Find their "good side".
#2) What is their positive intention?
The book Difficult Conversations explores the concept of intent vs. impact. Have you ever been surprised by the inadvertent impact your positive intention had on another? It could be the same here. While this person's impacting you negatively, they more than likely have a positive intention. Ask yourself, what do they really want? Respect? Independence? Acknowledgement? You may realize you have similar goals, though you seek them differently.
#3) Why do they behave that way?
It’s useful to believe their actions have little (if anything) to do with you. Most people operate out of habit. Even if they don’t get the respect or attention they desire, they can’t change because they don’t know any other way. Maybe you can help.
- Suggest ways they might achieve their aims more effectively.
- Give them information about their impact on you and the workplace environment.
- Exercise empathy instead of judgment.
You Have More Power Than You Think
As you read this article, think of someone with whom your “dance” feels like a struggle. Instead of wishing they would change, change yourself. Change the way you interact with them.
- If you're avoiding, communicate.
- If you're defensive and resistant, listen.
- If you're gossiping, stop.
You may not change your opinion, but you will find new power you didn't know you had. When you want to resolve a conflict, control the only thing you can – you. Because when you change, everything changes.
You're doing this for you. You're stuck and you want to get unstuck. Like your conflict partner, you've been taking actions that aren’t working, so try something new. When your wellbeing depends upon the actions of others, you waste a lot of energy trying to control them. With awareness and practice, you can make new choices about how you respond to the difficult people and situations in your life. This is where true power lies, and you have more than you think.
Read a longer article about difficult people on my Web site.
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