Dealing with Difficult People

teacher3456  Fred was hired to do a survey of supervisors and managers.  The survey was divided into 10 parts.  Two of those parts related to relationships; one was union relationships, the other human relationships.

     When it came to union relationships, Fred found that the people who scored the lowest were those supervisors who were involved in personnel.  When management shared the survey with the supervisors, they became very angry.  They felt the survey was incorrect and that they should have scored higher.  Their scores were low because of their attitude.  They regarded unionized employees as lazy and selfish.

     Fred who did the survey replied, “These are your answers not mine.  So let’s look at how you think.”  So he invited each of the supervisors individually into an office and began the conversation something like this; “Mr. Supervisor, I understand that if I was a union steward, your position to me would be that I restrict output.   I am the one who causes high cost of labour; consequently I am the one who makes the company become non-competitive.  Therefore, I must be the cause of all the layoffs.”

     Then Fred reversed the roles.  Fred played the part of the supervisor, and the supervisor in the office, played the role of union steward.

     Fred started by saying, “Mr. Union Steward, you have been a steward for a long time now and you and I have worked together for many years.   We both want the same thing; that our families are taken care of.  We both want a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work.   Mr. Union Steward, you know if it wasn’t for caring people like you, children would still be falling into the machinery of the cotton mills.    If it weren’t for people like you, we probably wouldn’t have any Medicare.  If it weren’t for people like you, we probably wouldn’t have any unemployment insurance and no social safety nets at all.  Matter of fact, if it wasn’t for people like you I probably wouldn’t even have a job.”

     “You and I ultimately want the same thing and that is to live free with a decent lifestyle.   You and I just have different positions, but our goals intersect.”

What dialogue would work better to make everyone motivated and provide for this company to be more effective?

Creating problems should not be the purview of any manager.   Resolving problems, however, should be part of their criteria.   Communication and treating people with dignity is a more productive way to get things done.

The conclusion and agreement with all of those surveyed was that to get to the root of any problem is to separate the problem from the individual and stop labeling him or her as difficult.  Instead label the problem so everyone can focus on the solution instead of pointing fingers at each other.

Not everyone has stresses or problems in their lives

Near my home, there is a place where everyone there is stress and problem free. It’s called the cemetery.  Problems and stress are just a part of living.  Likewise, difficult people are a part of living.  Whenever we have to deal with difficult people, in reality we are dealing with the difficulties those people are having.  Often they take their frustration out on us, or others like us, because they don’t know how to deal with whatever is frustrating them.   If we first try to deal with the difficult person, and not with that person’s difficulty, the problem will still remain.

Separating the difficulty from the person enables you to do two things.  First, you can become an ally of the troublesome individual, and they will usually appreciate the fact that you care about their situation.  Second, you will be able to communicate more effectively because the real obstacle—their problem—will be out of the way.

In the workplace, we often label people who press our hot buttons as difficult people.  It may be that what they say or do gets our backs up.

To focus on people who say or do that which irritates us, or who look at us in ways we don’t like, is easy.  Looking past them, to try to understand their problems that is prompting them to “take it out” on others is more difficult.  Judging people seems easy.  Solving problems is certainly more challenging; it’s more effective however and creates a win-win situation for all concerned.

How much more successful we would be if clients and customers saw us as problem solvers.  After all, the reason they give us their business is the fact that we solve whatever problems they bring to us.  In the case of the “difficult people,” the apparent problem is not the first one we need to solve.  The good news is, even if all we do is show that we are sensitive to the customer’s state of mind by ignoring their “tantrums” and focusing on solving the problem they say they want to solve, we will increase the likelihood they will deal with us again.

     A colleague of mine, who worked in an office supply store, received a call from an irate customer.  In his usually pleasant manner, my friend answered the call, “Good morning, XYZ Office Supplies. How may I help you?”

     “I don’t know what’s good about it!” the caller rudely replied.  “I received a batch of pencils from you yesterday and every time I sharpen them, the damn things splinter.  They’re no damn good!”

     “I’m sorry you have been having so much trouble.  Those pencils are actually of a very high quality.  Would you let me correct this situation for you?”

     “How can I do that? You’re there and I’m here, and I don’t want to take the morning to come downtown to return these bloody pencils.”

     “I don’t think you will have to do that,” my friend calmly replied, ignoring the customer’s tantrum, “If I’m wrong I will bring you replacements myself, no charge.  However, I need you to do something for me?”

     “You’ll bring me new pencils?”

     “Yes.  However, I’d like to ask you to help me with something first.  Is that okay?”

     “It depends what it is!” the customer replied in a calmer, yet still argumentative tone of voice.

     “Well, I’d like to ask you to remove the cover of the pencil sharpener you used, and tell me what you see inside?”  “Oh, alright,” said the skeptical caller, “but I don’t know what good that will do.” “Thank you.  I really appreciate your help.”

     After a couple of minutes, the customer returned to the phone.  The cover was full of pencil shavings.  What is more, between the cutting blades was a large piece of pencil lead, which prevented the blades turning properly.  I guess I forgot to empty it.”

     “Would you mind emptying the cover and removing that piece of lead and trying to sharpen another pencil?” my friend asked.

     “Okay, but I can’t see how that will solve the problem.”

     A couple of minutes passed before the caller returned to the phone.  “It worked fine” he said, clearly embarrassed by his oversight.

     “I thought that might be the problem,” my friend replied.   “I’ve had the same thing happen to me. Thank you so much for bearing with me.  Is there anything else I can do for you today?   We have a special on computer paper.”

You guessed it.  The client bought a box of paper.

By focusing on the real problem that the customer had, and not on the problem customer, my friend solved both difficulties and made another sale in the process.  You can be sure, that customer will be sending more of his business to my friend’s store.   No one is difficult all the time.  On the other hand, almost everyone is difficult sometimes.  With very few exceptions, a personal issue is the root cause.  Some people we meet are clearly out of sorts and they can become problems to us.  In this case, the real problem, the root cause of their irritability, is some issue they haven’t resolved.  Either way, the solution lies not in focusing on the person but in finding a solution to the underlying problem.

To break down walls, which come between us and difficult people we need to know how to uncover the hidden issues that underlie their frustrations.  We need to discover what makes them behave as they do.

There are several other issues when seeking to get subordinates on board.  Knowing why they do what they do, will certainly help you to decide the “how” of getting them to do what you want them to do.  Sometimes, knowing when or where a behavior occurs will prove to be the key that unlocks the “why.”  If a behavior only occurs at a particular time, or in a particular place, the answer may simply lie in a change in either.

Recently, a colleague’s production line began to slow down.  The situation could not continue.  As she surveyed the assembly line, she found that two workers were doing what to them was mind-numbing work.  Yet, both had been competent and dependable workers.  Talking with them revealed that they would be happier doing more challenging work.  When she switched their jobs the assembly link immediately sped up.  Taking time to understand the “why” gave my colleague the “how” to resolve the problem.  The change proved to be a win-win situation for all concerned.

Not all problems are so easily solved.  Regardless, finding the solution starts by asking the right questions:

Who is affected?

What effect is this difficulty having on the company’s bottom line?

Where is it happening? When?

How and what can I change to correct the situation and turn it into a win-win solution for all those affected?

On a personal note, while at a soccer game recently, I was distracted from the field play by a parent who was ranting and raving that the coach was no good and was doing everything wrong.  The coach reacted negatively to this “problem” parent and the other parents could see why?  Clearly, he had an angry parent on his hands.  However, this very wise coach took some time to consider why this parent was angry.  He separated the angry behavior from the parent as a person.  He asked himself, “Why is this parent so angry?”  By doing so, he focused on the problem and not on whose problem it was.  Instead of putting this parent into the “difficult person” category, he endeavored to solve his problem by helping the parent solve her problem.

She was angry because her daughter wasn’t playing in the position that she had always played.  As childish as her reaction may have seemed at the time, the discomfort she felt by the change, nevertheless was a real problem to her.  Actually, any time we make unexpected changes we also change the environment of those who must function in the situation we have altered.  Even in normal circumstances, the change can lead to expressions of displeasure by those now made uncomfortable by the change.  The value of the change is irrelevant. The fact there is a change is often all that is needed to provoke “tantrums” of one kind or another in response.

This was a very wise coach. As soon as there was a break in the game, he spoke to the woman. He took a few minutes to explain why he put her daughter in the new position.  “She has more skill than many of the other players,” he said, much to the prideful pleasure of the girl’s mother.  “As a defensive player, she will help us break up the offensive runs on our goal.  She knows how to anticipate what the other players are likely to do.  We need that kind of defense to keep our team strong.” – The tub was plugged.

By getting to the root of the problem, he no longer had an angry, belligerent parent.  By getting to the real problem, he created a win for the whole team.  When you can get to the root of anyone’s problem, you make that person matter.  You focus on the problem and not the person with the problem.  From there you can move on to a solution that is good for all concerned.

Whenever you label a person as “difficult,” you cannot properly focus on the real problem.  Problems are solvable; people are difficult to change unless they see a good reason to do so.  By solving their problem, you will often solve your problem too.

Besides, why make a difficult person even more difficult because their problem persists?  In a team setting, by allowing the problem to continue, it can affect the entire team because anyone with an unresolved difficulty will gossip, grumble, and otherwise disrupt the coherence of the group.  The disruption eventually demoralizes every member.  Whenever we brand another as a “difficult person” we foul the lines of communication.  Misunderstanding, gossiping, backbiting, complaining, and negative thinking result.  People get discouraged and productivity goes down.  These secondary lines of communication, as opposed to direct leader-subordinate dialogue are not only disruptive they are also destructive.

Whenever people feel slighted, or feel that they are getting less than their due, whenever they feel misunderstood, or worse, they don’t matter, and then they will turn to these secondary lines of communication among themselves.  Whenever they feel the leadership doesn’t listen to their concerns, communication between levels in the hierarchy will fail.  Secondary lines of communication, and negative talk among peers, are team killers.  They demoralize people and put roadblocks in the way of positive, constructive dialogue within and between various levels of workers within the organization.

As soon as you become aware that secondary lines of communication are in play, you must determine why and set about opening more constructive dialogue.  Part of the solution is to make each person in the organization feel he or she is an important part of the organizational team.  They must feel that their contribution is important to achieving the goals of the business.  Doing so upholds the dignity of each worker.  When you bolster the dignity of your workers, you plug the tub.

Whatever the problem that produces any difficulty for management, finding out what it is, usually requires some detective work.  You must ask questions to determine the symptoms and uncover their cause:

What symptoms bring the problem to your attention?

Where does the problem take place?

When does it occur?

Who is involved when the problem arises?

The more questions you ask, the more likely you will get to the root of the matter.

A school in Manitoba was having difficulties with many of its students.  Administration surveyed the student body and found that many of the students were poor.  Often they came to school without having had any breakfast.  It wasn’t that the students were difficult.  They were tired and hungry and so could not concentrate well.  They weren’t problem students; they were students with a common problem.  The principal and her staff began a free breakfast program.  Soon students were better nourished and therefore more able to concentrate.  Improved concentration led to better grades.  The better their grades the more encouraged students became.  By year’s end, there were relatively fewer problems confronting the administration.  Everyone was happier and the tub was plugged.                      Knowing your people means knowing that which motivates them.  When you know what motivates people you can use that information to increase their pride in their work and make them feel valued.  When that happens productivity goes up proportionately.  Value gives workers dignity, self-worth and plugs their tub.

To be sure, you will not resolve every issues to the satisfaction of everyone all of the time.  However, unless you see past the “problem employees” or “problem customers” and begin to see them as people with problems, you will not get to the root of many issues.  Creating win-win solutions whenever you can, keeps the tub plugged.

Keep in mind that the majority of corporate problems are, at their core, people problems.  Then, solving the problems your people are having is ultimately the solution to your problems.  Keep in mind, too, that the “problem” that is presented to you is seldom the real underlying problem you have to solve, especially respecting personnel and customer-relation issues.  Symptoms are what they usually present as their problems.  The real problem often lies deeper and reflects some unmet need the “difficult person” has.  Focusing on the presenting symptoms will not solve the real difficulty.  So, take time to learn what you need to know.  Ask the questions that will lead you to the real concern.  Meet that need and you will have solved the problem.

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