Why do we argue? Why can’t everyone agree? Why are some people just… difficult? Challenging interactions have been with us since the dawn of humanity, they are a part of the fabric of the Human Experience. But boy are they hard! There is one pivotal concept that must be accepted before any one of us is going to be able to respond to these situations positively: We are faced not with difficult people, but with difficult behavior.
Ask yourself this: how does it feel to be labeled “difficult?” There is a great Seinfeld episode exploring this feeling, when Elaine receives much societal rejection for having this word written on her doctor’s reports. Doesn’t feel very good, does it? That’s because, as we all know, humans are capable of great things, and nothing is permanent. Labels help us identify things and their uses, purposes and intents. When we apply labels to people though, it dehumanizes them and implies permanence. Not good.
Behaviors, on the other hand, are actions occurring in moments of time. They need not be tied to the person committing such behavior’s identity, unless they choose to do so. Thus, applying labels to behaviors is a much more constructive means to approach the situation at hand.
From a very-wide-lens, we can identify all reactions and responses to difficult behavior under three primary categories:
1. Do Nothing
The easiest thing to do when faced with difficult behavior is to just ignore the problems you perceive and hope they go away. Remember that bully in middle school who wouldn’t leave you alone? Everyone told me to just ignore him, don’t give him what he wants. How did that work out? For me, as I would imagine for most of you as well, this tactic backfired spectacularly. It seemed to goad the bully on, and he just kept on messing with me.
Ignoring difficult behavior does nothing to make the person causing it to be aware of how you are perceiving it, how it is affecting you. It’s a non-starter, and many times the person may even consider your lack of response to be tacit approval. Yikes.
2. Change The Person
How many of you read this one and immediately thought “no, I would never want to CHANGE someone!” Well, this is a tricky one, because intention is very important. I lived in housing Co-ops in college, where a house of at least 20 people shared chores, meals and maintenance in a hyper-intense level of immediate proximity hard to imagine for most people. As you can imagine, difficult interactions were an everyday experience.
I remember one summer I was managing a Work Holiday where we all banded together to get some more major projects done. One member was being very lazy, disappearing to his room for hours at a time, much to the chagrin of those with whom he was assigned to work. In my naiveite, I thought I could go up there and motivate him to get to work, somehow giving him the energy I felt to make him want to go join in the collective experience.
But what was I really doing? As good intentioned as I felt I was, I was actually trying to change this person’s identity, make them into something they were not. I didn’t even consider what was going on with them, I just wanted them to buck up and conform. You can imagine how that worked out. Ultimately, my failures in communication as a leader that year led, in part, to a complete membership turnover. I had learned a very important lesson.
An individual’s personality is a result of that person’s unique life experience. Each person’s perception of reality is uniquely their own. Because of this, any change in their personality requires conscious effort by that very individual. When it comes to people, we can only change ourselves. Trying to force someone else to change their own personality is incredibly difficult, and when you think about it, incredibly selfish, too.
3. Modify Your Style For That Person
When realizing the failures of the above two methods of response, one of the most challenging relationships where difficult behaviors occur is in that of superior to subordinate. As a manager, you have a responsibility to the people you manage to make sure difficult behavior is not detrimental to co-workers or the organization. The style that you use to manage people may have to vary in order to meet the different challenges that different people present. To each their own.
This is the greatest challenge of all, but ultimately it is the only way that works. And it works because it takes the other person into account. You’re not just managing your way, you’re managing in a way that works for both of you, and not only does this make the interaction more comfortable, it empowers the other person and can even inspire them to change.
I know you’re all thinking, “Oh, great, more lofty platitudes about big-picture concepts. How does that help me today? How do I apply this to my own situation?” Well, the good news is, Vermont Panurgy has got you covered! We regularly host a plethora of virtual career development classes, several of which focus specifically on these types of interactions. Our virtual classrooms are small, highly personalized and live-led by one of our cohort of fabulous instructors. Our classes typically run for at least one full day, giving students and instructors plenty of time to dive into the topics and answer all questions. Our next class on this topic is called Managing Difficult People, and will occur from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm on Thursday, August 27th. If you are interested in attending, or if you want to learn more about our offerings, contact us today!