How To Change The Way You Deal With Difficult People
Back in the late 1980s, I regularly presented a program for CareerTrack Inc., which was then the largest and most successful training company in the world, on the subject of ‘How To Deal With Difficult People.’
I loved the humor potential of the topic, first and foremost. This was evident to anyone who attended, and again when I and a friend created an audio and video program by that name (the program made the Columbia House Top Ten list – and may have been the first use of skits and comedy to deliver training in an audio and video program)
Seemed to me (and still seems to me) that if you’re not laughing about difficult people, you’re probably crying. I give myself permission to find the funny in difficult behavior, and when conducting training, to find a way to tickle others with it.
I also loved the reflection aspect- that what bothers people most about other people is something they can’t stand in themselves. As we become more personally resourceful in dealing with our reactions, we become more interpersonally resourceful at the same time.
And I loved the challenge of taking something that drives most people crazy and finding a way to teach people how to actually look forward to it. Why settle for coping (a then popular book recommended that you ‘cope with difficult people’) when you can actually have fun dealing with bad behavior, or make a difference, or turn it into something productive?
I got to practice my difficult people presentation, at my peak, about 140 times a year. At some point, I had incorporated the answer to just about every question that had ever come up in the live seminar, and each time at bat was an exercise in nuance. The great upside of teaching this topic is I got to learn it for myself, and learn it deeply and permanently. But it wasn’t just from rote memory. Fact is that during that time, I developed a process which i called “Breaking the chains of reaction,” and each time I taught it, I did it with another set of experiences. The result was that I transformed my ability to deal with bad behavior a good deal of the time.
You can do the same, and without teaching a class to others. You just need an approach, a method, a process that you can use dependably. Here’s mine. I recommend this process to anyone struggling with difficult people, and have helped clients work their way through it on numerous occasions. It goes something like this:
1. What yanks your chains?
Identify what the behavioral triggers are that push your buttons and rattle your chains by reviewing past experiences in which your difficult person got to you. What did they do? That’s different than thinking about why it bothered you. Instead, just identify their actual behavior. Was it the way they talked to you? How did they talk to you? Was it the way they looked at you? How specifically did they look at you?
2. How do you react? Do you blame them? Get mental? Distract yourself? Hide what’s going on? Try to fix it? When they do that thing they do, what is it that you do in response?
3. What do you want from you? What’s the best you can bring to the situation, or the behavior or attitude you’d like to have that, regardless of what they did, you’d be delighted with yourself after the incident?
4. What do you want from them? Don’t answer this one until you answered the previous one, or you’re likely to get a useless answer, like “I want them to stop doing that!” The point here is to take aim at something. What is the best you can hope for from the other person?
5. Find a role model or construct an idea of how to respond from scratch
Who do you know that knows how to deal with the person? How do they do it? And if you don’t know anyone, who do you know of that might know how to do it? (Fictional or real!) How might they do it?
6. Rehearse it by giving yourself a do-over of a past experience. Get a clear idea of how your role model walks and talks, what they say and how they say it, what they think and feel, and then try it on for size, find out (in the privacy of your mind) if it makes a difference in how you are and how your difficult person responds.
That’s it. Practice makes perfect. This is how we train our nervous systems to do something new in a familiar situation. I think that the key to positive change in ourselves when dealing with habitual (and often emotional) reactions to life not behaving as we wish it would, is pattern disruption. Learn to do even ONE thing differently, and you change the entire pattern.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.