Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

Difficult people – no such thing?


“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Plato

I have been a bit grumpy and feeling sorry for myself over the past week or so. This is mainly because of being laid up with a rather grotty cold and sore throat.

 Whilst I have dealt with it reasonably well, my behaviour has unfortunately let me down on more than one occasion.  I will have been short or impatient with those around me and I think it would be fair to say that I may have even been perceived as being difficult at times.

 This has all reminded me of one of the most common questions that I am asked in the course of my work: “Chris, tell me, how can I best deal with difficult people”?

 This is a big question to answer, as the word “difficult” can involve a multitude of “sins” and, of course we are all different. As a first step though,  I encourage the person to look at their own perception, rather than to immediately offer up some kind of quick fix strategy or technique.

 A good way to illustrate this is by describing an interaction that occured a few years back on a customer care programme I was running. It was an in house course for a local authority in Essex. Two of the participants were from the housing department – arguably a challenging place to work at the best of times! One was a woman in her 40’s, the other a man in his late 20’s. They worked alongside each other and had identical responsibilities, dealing with customers – whether over the counter or by ‘phone. During the day the group inevitably arrived at the thorny subject of dealing with difficult people.  

 The woman declared “I don’t encounter any difficult customers in my job”. As she said it, her colleague looked at her as if she were off another planet, blurting out “You’re kidding Margaret, virtually every other person we deal with is a pain the proverbials! How can you say that you have no difficult customers?”

 What was interesting was my personal reaction to this – I wholeheartedly believed each of them!

 Howcome? Was she particularly lucky in getting to deal with all the nice people? Was he unlucky? No – it was all about perception.

 He encountered nuisances, she encountered people with difficulties who needed help, guidance or support. She saw people whose behaviours were letting them down, he saw stroppy people.

 I shall offer up an analogy in order to clarify further. Imagine that you purchase a new radio. You bring it home, plug it in and switch it on. The sound of Barry Manilow issues forth from the speaker……Now, it just so happens that you personally cannot stand the great Bazzer Man. So, you unplug the unit, put it back in its box and hotfoot it back to Comet or Argos or wherever, in order to demand a refund: “I don’t like this radio, the sound it makes offends me, I want my money back!”.

 Is this the kind of thing that a reasonable person would ever do? Clearly not. Or as Mr Bannatyne of Dragons’ Den would probably put it – it would be “ridiculous and ludicrous!”

 Yet, so many of us do this so much of the time.

 As we reject the radio, we fall for something we could call “bad radio illusion” – we see the radio as being the problem as opposed to the station or song that is playing at the time. Ridiculous, ludicrous.

 As we reject people in this way we can equally call it “bad person illusion” (a term coined by US conflict management authority Dr Daniel Dana). So, we see the person as the problem, rather than the behaviour that is “playing” at the time. Ridiculous, ludicrous.

 One of the first steps, therefore towards effectively dealing with “difficult people” or resolving a conflict lies in the ability to separate the behaviour from the person. In other words, to eliminate the “bad person illusion”

 All too often bad person illusion can lead us into the trap of branding a customer or a colleague in some way. We give them a label such as “nuisance” or “pain in the ****” or “idiot”  etc. I use the term “branding” advisedly as these labels tend to stick and become increasingly difficult to remove.

 I recall in my first ever telephone sales job, there was a particular client that nobody wanted to deal with. He had a reputation for being difficult – he had been “branded”. If anyone was due to speak with him, they would look up his record which would be awash with denigrating comments and labels. They would then likely deal with him in a clipped, surly tone, thus propagating the uncomfortable dynamic.  Whilst I can’t prove anything, part of me wonders whether, on the very first occasion he dealt with us he may have been having a bad day, whether his behaviour let him down and whether that then set the tone for every subsequent interaction?

 If I happen to encounter you on a day when you may be feeling grumpy, unwell or negative in some other way, it can be a tragedy. I could find myself on the receiving end of the resulting behaviour. I could then so easily make a rash judgment about who you are to the extent that it affects the relationship from that point on.

 That’s not to excuse the behaviour, but separating it out helps us better deal with it. We are more likely to listen, to understand and to take constructive steps to resolving any difficult situation or conflict.

 In other words, we work with the person to change the station that’s playing, rather than chuck out the radio.

 I may share specific ways we can do this in future posts.

 Meanwhile, you may be relieved to hear that I am feeling much better this week, so am far less likely to hit you with my equivalent of Barry Manilow, Julio Iglesias, Des O’Connor…….


One Response to “Difficult people – no such thing?”

  1. In my experience, I have found it easier dealing with the behaviour of so called “difficult people” where their actions are all out front, the wysiwyg type. At least there is a pretty accurate view of what they are feeling (or so you think, read on !!!), as in many cases their emotions have nullified their thinking. I have found it more challenging dealing with people who tend to hold back, people that typically say “yes” when they mean “no” – who mentioned our 2018 Olympic bid ?? I agree with Chris however, that it is wise to observe judge behaviour as opposed to judjing individuals as a result of their behaviour. Here’s a story someone shared with me a couple of years ago.

    An ex colleague of mine was on a train for a weekend trip to London. Across the aisle was a yound women with two children who were playing havoc. My friend tolerated this for a while, but began to get more and more upset by this family who clearly had no respect for others on the train. Eventually my friend had had enough as the mother clearly had no interest or seemed totally unaware of her children’s actions. “Hmmm, another woman who has no consideration for those around her”, she thought. So she challenged her about the behaviour of her children in a rather pointed manner at which the mother replied something like “I’m sorry, but I found out earlier today that my husband died suddenly. I don’t know how to act, my children don’t know how to act, but I am very sorry for spoiling your journey”. It would have been so easy to be judgemental wouldn’t it !!

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