Skills 360 – Dealing with Problem People (Part 1)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast! I’m Tim Simmons, and I’m looking forward to an especially exciting year of podcasts. There’s lots of great stuff in the works for 2012, so stay tuned.

Now, the New Year is a really important time for most people. For one thing, we use it as a time for setting goals. And if you want some help doing that, be sure to check out the Skills 360 podcast on ‘achieving your goals’. The New Year is also a time when we feel refreshed and optimistic about the future. It’s a brand new start, right? Well, unfortunately, that feeling is not shared by everyone. You might go to the office in the New Year with a smile on your face, but there are people who seem determined to wipe it off. I’m talking about problem people.

Every office has them. They might be uncooperative, rude, confrontational, overly competitive, or just plain unpleasant. Whatever the case, they’re a pain in the butt to deal with. These problem people test our patience and push our buttons. But they don’t have to. You just need to stick to a few basic principles and you’ll have better success in dealing with these situations.

Today I want to talk about how to deal with specific incidents with these difficult people. Maybe you’re in a meeting and someone is screaming and shouting at everyone and everything. Or maybe a grouchy colleague walks up to your desk and wants to start an argument. Or maybe someone on your project team is in a really bad mood. These are the kinds of incidents I’m talking about.

So how do we deal with them? Firstly, try not to judge the person. Don’t assume you know what’s going on. The source of the person’s behavior might be completely unrelated to you or work. It might simply be coming out in your presence. The other thing you need to realize is that difficult people are often difficult because of insecurity or fear. For both of these reasons, reacting in ways that increase anxiety are going to be counterproductive. Instead, you need to find ways to decrease anxiety.

This means, first and foremost, remaining cool, calm and collected. Stay rational rather than becoming emotional. Even if the person seems to be baiting you, try not to get involved in an argument. Take the high road and, even if the person is getting personal, don’t stoop to their level. In many cases, remaining calm and refusing to involve yourself in an argument can defuse the situation relatively quickly. So, if someone says to you “Hey Jack, your idea stinks. That would never work in a million years,” resist the temptation to strike back with, “Yeah, well your idea isn’t so hot either.”

If the person persists, one technique you can use is to repeat back what he or she is saying. Like this: “So, you think my idea stinks and it would never work?” Or you can rephrase it, like this: “So, you think my idea is terrible and I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Just be careful not to infer too much. You might cause a bigger argument if you overinterpret what someone says. But if you repeat back the basic idea or words, sometimes people will realize what they’ve just said and how it must sound.

Now, sometimes people cause problems because they don’t feel understood. A solution for that is very simple: listen. Hear what the person has to say, invite him to explain more, and ask questions about his opinion. Just remember to focus on the ideas, not the personal attacks or issues. If you give a difficult person the floor, rather than taking it away from him, you will sometimes see him turn a corner and become more positive.

And let’s not forget some direct techniques. In some circumstances, you can simply tell someone directly that his behavior is disruptive or disrespectful and ask him very kindly to change. Remember to focus on behavior, not character. It’s okay to say, “Brad, everyone would feel more comfortable if you would lower your voice and focus on the task at hand.” That’s much better than saying “Brad, you’re a terrible grouch and we can’t stand being around you,” even if that’s what you really want to say.

Great. So remember to keep your cool, to listen and understand as well as possible, and to show or tell someone the effects of their behavior. If you follow these principles, you’ll have much better success with those difficult people.

That’s all for today. If you’d like to test yourself on what we’ve just covered, have a look at the website. There you’ll find a quiz about today’s show as well as a complete transcript.

Next week, we’ll look at ongoing long-term problems with difficult people. You may not be able to change them as people, but you may be able to change the way they act.

So long. And see you again soon.

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