Dealing with Difficult Personalities – 5 Effective Tips

difficult personalityIn my article, “Dealing with Difficult Personalities – What Not to Do,” I talked about 4 things not to do:

  1. Don’t react emotionally or defensively.
  2. Don’t try to change this person.
  3. Don’t complain to this person’s boss to try to resolve this.
  4. Don’t gossip about this situation with other co-workers.

Continuing with my example with Anna, what should I have done?  To recap: Anna hada great reputation for being smart and excellent at her job.   I also met her casually in the hallway, and thought she was quite nice.  During our first business meeting, she cut me off and began to pepper me with questions about why I needed this data and what I planned to use it for.  Her tone was sharp and aggressive.  I was quite surprised and caught off guard. ”  Here are 5 tips I recommend using to deal with any “difficult personality” at work, and for achieving the best long-term results.

Tip 1: Stay calm, and determine your long term goal – Ask yourself what happens to you if this person continues to be “difficult,” and if this person were to stop being “difficult.”  Determine how hard it would be to build a good relationship with this person, and weigh it against whether or not you can accomplish your goals through someone else.  Sometimes, it’s not worth the effort to resolve a situation and easier to work around it.  If this is the case, work around it. But if this person is someone you need to work closely with long term, then it’s important to resolve it and make sure you build a strong relationship with them.  In my case with Anna, I had to build a good relationship with her — her help with the data was essential to the success of the project.

Tip 2: Realize that “difficult” is a perception, and we are partially responsible for it – Nobody likes to hear this, but many times we are partially responsible for why we think a person is “difficult.”  It’s important to realize that the label “difficult” is your perception of this person based on unmet expectations.  This person may very well think the same of us, and others may not think this person is “difficult” at all.

The good news is once we realize that “difficult” is a perception, there is hope that change can occur.   We cannot easily change others, but we can change our own actions, expectations, and perceptions to alleviate the situation.  My first reaction in that meeting with Anna was “why is she being difficult?” Remembering this point, I thought maybe it’s just the way she speaks – direct and to the point.  She doesn’t mean to be aggressive, I am just perceiving it that way.  So, I decided to take her questions at face value and just focused on answering them while ignoring the tone.

Tip 3: Examine the potential root cause behind this person’s “difficult” behavior –  Any time someone is “difficult” in your perception, it’s because you had certain expectations about how they should have acted, and they didn’t act in that way.  Start by examining what your expectations were regarding how this person should have acted and how they disappointed you.  Also realize that there are four potential root causes behind “difficult” behavior.  You may find that it’s not personal at all.

  1. Reaction to your tone, demeanor, or approach to them – If you went to someone and asked for something ASAP, you may have thought that it was a reasonable request. However, they may be swamped and didn’t appreciate your bossy tone, and therefore decided not to be helpful.
  2. Your presence triggered this person’s insecurities based on their past experiences – You may have been perfectly considerate, but this person might have had some bad experiences with people in your type of role, and decided to be defensive by default.
  3. It has nothing to do with you at all – This person is having personal issues, or just a bad day, and you just caught them at the wrong mood or time.
  4. Likes to be difficult – Some people get a kick out of irritating other people, mainly due to boredom or unhappiness with their own lives.

The good news is you can do something to change the situation.  I thought about how my tone came across, and made sure it was considerate and neutral.  I then thought about Anna’s role as a data lead — she must get many requests for her help, but not everyone thinks through what they need or what they will do with the data.  It is her right and her job to make sure I don’t waste her time.  With that perspective, I totally understood why she asked me those questions.  I also thought she probably didn’t know her tone was sharp, but it  wasn’t my place to tell her — my focus was on getting her help.

Tip 4: Ask for advice – It’s very hard to look at things objectively when we are emotional, so find a mentor at work or outside of work you respect, and ask for constructive advice on what you can do.  Remember, this is not the same as venting to your friends or gossiping to co-workers.  Your only purpose is to get advice on how to resolve the situation.

Regardless of what advice you get, you have to make the final decision about how to proceed.  Don’t just let someone else tell you what to do — stay accountable and stay in control.  This one I didn’t need to do with Anna, as I was able to handle it myself. Although, in other cases I have found it immensely useful to get outside perspectives.

Tip 5: Choose a calm, open approach – There are a few tactics you can try here, depending on what you think the root cause is:

  1. Soft request – Apologize if you thought you may have been directive or bossy. Afterwards, ask for help and ask them when they would be able to accomplish it.  This will soften the person up and make them feel appreciated.
  2. Direct communication – Start with something like, “I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot last time.  I want to work together effectively to do xyz.  I would love to figure out how we can best work together to accomplish that.”   Then ask questions about how they’d like to work together, their pet peeves, etc.  This gives people the room to express what may have set them off last time. They will also appreciate the proactive approach and your intention to take them into account.
  3. Benefit of the doubt – Focus on thinking well of others; assume that they have good reasons for how they are dealing with you; be appreciative and thankful.
  4. Don’t expect anything – If you don’t expect anything from this person, then they won’t appear “difficult” to you.  If you try again and still don’t get what you need, then think of alternative routes.

During the meeting, I decided to take approach # 3 — Benefit of the doubt.  I ignored her tone and focused on answering her questions.  Once I discounted the tone, her questions were actually quite valid and smart; I thanked her genuinely for asking them.  I wanted a partner who can push my thinking about what analysis I needed.  Anna is smart and experienced, and would be a valuable thought partner in that respect.  I told her so, and that definitely help disarmed her and gained her support.

Since that meeting, Anna and I have became great colleagues and friends.  I later found out that she had been yanked around by many “pie-in-the-sky” requests, where the requester had no clear idea what to do with the data after her team’s hard work.  She learned to always question.  I now know she means nothing by her tone, and to this day I don’t think she is aware of it.  I also never found it my place to say anything about it to her.

While this is just one mild example, I hope these tips can give you constructive ways to deal with almost any “difficult personality.”  If you have a specific “difficult personality” example you would like me to address, submit a story, and we’ll have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.  Best wishes to your career success

– Lei

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