Build or burn?

Dealing with difficult people

We can all be difficult sometimes, even you.  Here are my suggestions how to deal with the spectrum of difficult people.  These apply whether the person is male or female, old or young, charming or obnoxious.

The Bully

This sort of person loves the hierarchy of organisations.  They are rude, dismissive of others’ points of view and generally adopt a humourless persona.  These people tend not to ever lose their temper.  They don’t need to.  They manage by fear.  Believing they are setting high standards, they will bully you.  It’s quite hard to argue with these people because they tend to assert that black is white and then hold it against you when you tell them they’re wrong.  There’s only one way to deal with this sort of person, bully them back.  Stand toe to toe with them in an argument.  They’ll hate you for it, but it doesn’t matter because they have no respect for you anyway.  When the bully is your boss, or your client, you’re in trouble because you can’t bully them back.  It used to be you had two choices: suffer or leave.  Increasingly nowadays you have a whistle-blowing mechanism.  But let’s be honest, none of your choices are good.

The Warrior

These people are permanently on a war footing.  On meeting them, you’ll quickly be categorised as friend or foe and treated accordingly.  They are the competitive people, the type that are first to speak when everyone else is silent.  They are dominant, adventurous, and confident.  Used to taking charge, they will interrupt, talk over you and insist on getting their way.  But it’s quite easy to deal with these people.  They like a good argument, so argue with them.  Don’t take it personally.  They will respect a combative approach and will probably like you for it.  But make sure you are prepared.  If your argument is weak or the case poorly expressed, they will take you apart; or, if you are their boss, ignore you.

When in conflict with a warrior, the debate can get heated, tetchy and bad-tempered.  That’s ok.  Business is a sport for grown-ups.  What you must avoid at all costs is losing your temper.  There’s a theory of behaviour in conflict situations.  It holds that most of us are in ‘adult’ mode most of the time but, when under stress, some of us revert into ‘child’.  We lose control.  We start shouting, our argument loses coherence and logic, and we may resort to name-calling.  This is raw anger.  Some people mistake anger for assertiveness.  It could hardly be more different.

The Bureaucrat

These are possibly the trickiest to deal with because, like a stealth assassin, you won’t know you’re under attack until you feel the knife going in.  Bureaucrats are fiercely intelligent and great networkers.  Positively motivated, they make fine leaders because they are capable, diplomatic and socially adept.  But they make formidable opponents if negatively motivated.  Expert at passive-aggressive tactics, they will tie you up in process while they mobilise opinion against you.

When in conflict with a bureaucrat there is only one way to deal with them: authority.  Roles and responsibilities need to be clearly delineated, and the bosses need to be behind you.  If you’ve got the governance framework right, you can just tell them what to do and, reluctantly, they’ll do it.  This takes patience and planning.  At all times you must be as cool and as ‘adult’ as they are.

The puppy

Energetic and enthusiastic, this person loves people and loves their work.  They will go the extra mile without being asked; the sort that will work through the night to hit a deadline.  How could such a person possibly be classed as difficult?  Because sometimes they have to work through the night to hit a deadline!  They over-deliver but they also over-promise, so they are not always reliable, and are prone to being distracted by the next exciting project.  So, although adorable, they sometimes pee on the carpet and can exhaust themselves if not careful. Deal with these people as an adult dog corrects their wayward offspring: a sharp nip on the neck.  It needs to be sharp otherwise the puppy won’t know they’re being corrected.

The vicar

The vicar is a lovely person.  They care how other people are feeling.  If they see a problem, they will step in, without being asked, and even if it’s not strictly their responsibility, because they feel a sense of moral obligation.  These people make good bosses, how could they be difficult? When things are going well, they’re not.  But things don’t always go well.  Sometimes a manager doing their job makes people unhappy.  Deal with vicars by avoiding putting them in charge in a crisis.

The rabbit

The rabbit will never assert themselves.  If you invite them to, they’ll feel horribly uncomfortable.  Aren’t they the opposite of difficult then?  No, because they won’t speak up.  Or if they do, it won’t be loud enough to be heard; even if they see something going wrong and know how to put it right.  There’s only one way of dealing with someone like this and that’s to ask them their opinion, and listen to it.

Give me a difficult person any day.  At least you can deal with them.  It’s the reasonable people that you have to watch out for.  If they are implacably opposed to your proposal, it’s hard to refuse them.

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