Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dealing with Difficult People

No one ever looked forward to dealing with a difficult person, whether it is an employee, customer or co-worker. But inevitably, problems arise and at some time, it will be your turn to address them. It is not only important that we deal with people in difficult situations, but we need to learn how to deal with people in general. There are some common mistakes professionals make when dealing with difficult people, and a few simple actions can ease the situation.

The first step is to identify what type of person you're working with and the rationale behind their actions. Understand that you might need to communicate differently with various types of people. The quiet person, for example, might need some advance warning about your meeting and some prompting in order to share ideas. The complainer wants some assurance that his or her voice will be heard and that you'll actually take some action in response.

All employees should receive some kind of training in communication skills and it is helpful to keep a "tool box" of techniques you can use to address difficult situations. Here are a few of the tools from my toolbox:

• Step back from the situation. Often, people think they need a quick comeback when faced with a difficult situation, or they make assumptions about the problem at hand. Take the time to step back and try to get the other person talking. Find out what their style of communication is and try to accommodate it. People forget that the person they're facing isn't exactly like them, so take the time to find out as much as you can before you address the problem.

• If you can, practice your response. When situations don't have to be dealt with on the spot, take the time to practice your response. Try to think like the other person. It's helpful to say things out loud so you hear what you could be saying to the other person. Anticipate their responses and adjust your delivery. Practice helps us make the mistakes beforehand and reduce misinterpretation once you are face to face.

• Stay in the "adult" mode. According to Dr. Eric Burn, there are three modes of communication - child, parent and adult. When dealing with conflict, it's important to stay in the adult mode. Don't act like a parent and be judgmental or a child and be defensive. Accept any responsibility that may be yours. Realize that it's OK to agree to disagree. Ultimately, if tempers begin to flare, realize that you may need to take a break and get back together later on.

• Try to find an agreement. It is always helpful to find some agreement to the problem at hand; even if it's only that the problem exists. Coming to an agreement conveys understanding and works to move the conversation along. It can also be beneficial to speak in positive terms, by telling the person what you can do as opposed to what you can't do.

• Communicate and explore alternatives. Never assume you can't help someone. By thinking about alternatives and offering suggestions about what you can do, you keep the conversation on a positive plane. You can also ask the person, "What would you like me to do?" Not only could you help solve their problem, but you might also find that what they want is less than you imagined.

• Establish some boundaries for yourself.
Know what you are going to be able to put up with. Sometimes you might want to communicate those boundaries; sometimes you may not.

• Speak in private. If you're dealing with a difficult issue, speak with the person in private. Remember the adage: Praise in public, criticize in private.

• Use more "I" language than "you" language. "You" language can make a person become defensive. Instead of saying "you should" or "you must," try "I was expecting" or "I encourage you to... "

• Don't take things personally. It's hard not to, but it's not necessarily about you. You need to separate yourself from the issue. People often don't realize the reason their co-worker is upset does not have anything to do with them.

• Find agreement. See if you can find any agreement at all, or at least acknowledge that you understand the person's perspective. Say, "I can see your point." In a worst-case scenario, agree to disagree: "Evidently we both have different opinions on this, and that's OK."

• Focus on what you can do. Tell the person what you can do, not what you n can't do, about their request or complaint.

• Keep your cool. If one or both parties start to get upset, suggest resuming the conversation in 20 minutes after you calm down and collect your thoughts.

• Keep the lines of communication open. Remember that 70 percent to 90 percent of the message is screened by the receiver. For example, if you tell a co-worker you want to meet biweekly, he or she might interpret that to be either twice a week or every other week. Ask questions, listen, repeat the problem/solution and restate or rephrase your message. Checking for understanding is a great way to make sure the message you sent is the same message they received. Engage the person you are speaking with in the process.
When dealing with a difficult person, we forget there are all these choices we have. Slow the whole process down to give yourself some ability to think before you respond.

Posted 10/12/2003
By Patrick J. Donadio

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