How to Deal with Difficult People

Last week, we got to enjoy some pizza and learn how to address an issue that most of us deal with daily: How to manage and respond to interactions with difficult people. Our objectives for the workshop were to learn to recognize common problematic behaviors and to obtain skills for coping with difficult behaviors so we can manage conflict more productively.

These behaviors can vary from something as straightforward as name-calling to more abstract issues like dealing with individuals who operate based on inherent biases. Thus, difficulty is best defined as actions that may cause you to respond negatively or experience unpleasant complex emotions.

The first step to resolving these challenges is identifying the behavior. Sarah Finch, our presenter, provided numerous examples such as individuals who guilt trip, know it all, etc. A particularly noteworthy one I’m sure we can all relate to is “The Bulldozer.” A Bulldozer is someone who comes in very high energy to a space, is usually negative, gives you an ultimatum, and then leaves. Sarah told us about an old boss she worked for early on in her career who exemplified this. She was left feeling angry that he had not come in calmer and was at a loss for what was expected of her since it had not been effectively communicated.

The next step asks us to consider why a person is acting in a challenging manner. For example, Is the individual acting out due to feelings of a lack of power? What might be their emotional state after the trauma they’ve dealt with? Will you be the third person to give them an unfavorable answer potentially? Are they simply looking to feel heard? Think about how we react when we feel powerless or defensive. How do we act out? When we are more aware of our own reactions and difficult behavior, it becomes easier to empathize with others.

Can we identify any positive intent behind their actions? The example given to us was when someone cuts you off in traffic. Do we begin calling the driver names or do we choose a consider a kinder interpretation, such as the possibility that the driver did not see us or was in a rush to get to a doctor’s appointment. When we find a similarly difficult action frustrating or rage-inducing at work, we can realize there is not always malice behind the action. Just like in traffic, our clients may be doing the best they can in a hard situation.

After identifying the behavior and the potential causes for the conduct, we are in a much better spot to try to choose how to respond. Keeping it simple will help; angry individuals find their anger harder to maintain when approached calmly. So, though our gut reaction may not be to act with grace our response should not be reactive.

This can be done in a few ways. Paying attention to non-verbal signals is one of them. Whether in person or on the phone, these must reflect your intent. If you say things are fine but don’t check the tone of your voice, or you are not aware of a facial expression, your message may be misconstrued. People exhibiting difficult behavior are often not the best listeners, so non-verbal signals are sometimes vital.

Try to confront the behavior, not the values. You can’t make someone listen to you when they are in fight or flight mode. Defusing the situation first is critical to moving forward productively. One tool for addressing it is by using “I” statements instead of “you.” So instead of saying “you aren’t hearing me”, say “I don’t feel heard.” Approaching them with how their actions affect you is more likely to defuse the situation and enable them to hear what needs to change for their case to progress.

Lastly, now that we have identified and addressed it with the difficult person, what do we do? Well, every individual is predisposed to some conflict management preference. You may be inclined to accommodate, compete, compromise, etc. It will be up to you to identify where you fit and find a way and language to engage appropriately.

Some situations, despite all this effort, may be unresolvable. For further assistance or if any of this was unclear or there is more information or assistance with identifying a resolution to a specific problem you are having, you can always reach out to Ian or Jodi or contact our EAP Provider, Guidance Resources.

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Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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