Let’s have a real conversation about difficult people

So here’s a question I frequently hear from clients: OK Jim, I hear what you’re saying in theory – that people need to have a certain level of maturity and emotional intelligence to be good bosses or good employees for that matter. But MY boss (or just as often, MY employee or MY co-worker) lacks these characteristics and I want to know what, if anything, I can do about it.

These types of questions always break my heart a little bit. They come from people who are not having the kinds of workplace relationships that we “idealize” in our book Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face. But ultimately, the whole category of questions like this is difficult to answer, because I really don’t know the degree of the problem, or the nature of the problem specifically. Nor can I determine the degree to which the person asking the question is part of the problem, and in all likelihood, they aren’t entirely innocent.

So being completely out of my supply of magic wands, here are some things to think about when you think you have a boss or a co-worker who just doesn’t get it.

  • Ask your boss or co-worker to give YOU feedback about the working relationship from their perspective. This may seem counterintuitive, but there are two important purposes for doing so. First of all, it opens up a feedback channel in which the person might reciprocate and ask for feedback from you. Second of all, it may make you aware of some of the things you might be doing that are contributing to the frustrations you’re having with them.
  • Try to hone in on the specific behaviors which are bothering you. This is much more productive than generalized commentary about the other person’s maturity or people orientation. Remember that once you label someone by attaching a generalization, all your future observations will come through this judgment. Try instead to say “When I meet with Bob in his office he’s usually distracted and doesn’t seem to be listening” or “Several times lately Susan has asked me to put her customer’s needs at the head of the line, and this makes me feel like I’m unfair to the other sales reps.” Giving a more defined description of behavior helps you stay out of judgment about that person’s character or intentions and allows you to comment on those behaviors to the other person in a less threatening way.
  • Be a relationship visionary – talk about how you’d like things to be with your boss or co-worker and create a positive contrast with what is. “I can envision our meetings being more productive” is better than “our meetings suck.” Also, “I’d like us to have a relationship that feels good and productive for both of us” is likewise better than “this just isn’t working.”
  • Ask yourself if you’re simply being too fragile or sensitive. Running a business together means that we will sometimes bump up against one another in conflictive ways. Are you as forgiving and compassionate as you can, seeking to understand WHY the other person is behaving the way they are, rather than telling yourself stories about WHO they are?
  • Ultimately, the people you’re describing may be difficult people, and they may be less-than-desirable co-workers or bosses. So ultimately, there may be nothing you can do to change that – although I would encourage you to consider how influential we are as human beings with one another. So, the question points back to you – how much grace can you muster to deal with these difficult people, and is it worth it, in the end, to do so? Dealing with difficult people can take much energy, and can rob you of joy in your work. However, overcoming these difficulties and trying to work through them can be extremely rewarding also.
  • Another question is the greener pastures question – are things likely to be substantially better somewhere else? Maybe – maybe not – but you need to decide. Either learn to embrace the craziness where you are, and do your best to change it or move on.

Attempting to change others is a slippery slope. Sometimes you can influence people in very positive ways, and sometimes you can’t. Work on yourself first, be as skillful as you can in describing the gap between what is and what might be, and try to be more forgiving and understanding of others. If all that fails, start looking around – there might be a different sort of change you should be considering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Sarah Thomson

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