How to make difficult people easier

without changing them at all


Published on: August 2020

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

The other day an SVP of Technology for a large manufacturing company, whom we’ll call Barb, told me she was elated.

In the past two weeks, she had completely turned around a difficult colleague. In fact, something quite important had changed between the two of them and it felt like a complete miracle to Barb.

Barb’s colleague is a woman we’ll call Leslie. Barb must collaborate closely with Leslie, yet she’s been a thorn in Barb’s side for years. Everyone finds her intractable, she gets in the way of delivering on due dates, and negatively impacts the customer experience with her decisions. She’s argumentative, doesn’t listen to other points of view, and only wants things done her way. Barb has found it overwhelming to constantly butt heads with Leslie. Yet together they run a large part of the organization and must work closely with each other, agreeing on both strategy and frequently on tactics. In working with Barb it was clear that she needed the dynamic to change, as it was exhausting her and taking away from the rest of her responsibilities and priorities for the business.

So, how did Barb work this magic with Leslie? How did she transform the person she dreaded speaking with into someone with whom she can have constructive discussions that feel easy and productive? How did she change her nemesis into a true partner in collaboration?

She didn’t. Barb did not change Leslie at all. However, she did change her experience of Leslie andas a result, the relationship dynamic. In recent conversations and meetings with Leslie, they’ve been able to productively discuss challenging topics and, while they don’t always agree, they come to solutions they can both feel good about. The very conversations Barb has always dreaded are now enjoyable.

Since this situation had been going on for years, Barb found it helpful to step back and get an outside perspective on the situation. Our coaching conversation enabled her to find ways to question her own involvement in the dynamic and productively turn it around.

We’ve all worked with someone like Leslie. It can be quite frustrating to have challenging relationships with difficult people and they can cause tremendous drama and strain to those at all levels around them. It’s also common for relationships like this to create significant negative consequences to the business. And expecting people like Leslie to change – particularly since they have often gone unchecked and unchallenged for years – is a recipe in futility.

However, as we counseled Barb, you can take back control over these kinds of relationships and alter the course for yourself. If you find yourself in a situation like Barb’s, use these three tips for upgrading the dynamic.

  1. Challenge your own assumptions. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have a lot of assumptions about those we deem difficult. These assumptions may include things like: “she always wants to be right,” ”he doesn’t value my opinion,” or “she isn’t listening.” These assumptions create barriers and get in the way of our ability to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and connect with them to find common ground. When you notice these assumptions taking hold, instead ask yourself, “What am I assuming here? What might this person’s real intent be?”
  2. Take only what’s yours. I’ve noticed that often, in an effort to shorten interactions with difficult people, leaders will take on responsibilities or tasks so they can bring them to resolution their own way. And, if not taking on the responsibility, they may take on undue worry about it, or extra stress in planning around the interactions. Notice whether this is something you do. If so, you’re taking on the other person’s baggage. Instead, remind yourself in meetings, “This is not my bag to carry.” And be sure to let it go.
  3. Be direct yet open. The last thing we want to do with challenging colleagues is to be open. The instinct is to keep as much distance as possible. However, the barriers we create often contribute to the difficult dynamic. Push yourself to stop this on your own part. When you notice you are matching the closed nature of your colleague, instead use phrases like: “Help me understand…”, “I’m trying to understand this so I can be helpful…” and “Tell me more…” These phrases, that show your humility, can instantly unlock a dynamic and tear down seemingly impenetrable walls. You may find that when you seek to understand your colleague you may not be so far apart on issues and your colleague may be more open to understanding your perspective.

When you put these tips into practice, you create an atmosphere where others experience you as a restrained, composed, and inclusive leader who resonates with them. As you drop your guard, you let others do the same. Barb was surprised at how well this worked, and how quickly it helped her gain control over a dynamic that had been haunting her for years.

The key to building these habits is to celebrate when you remember to use them. Take stock after meetings to notice when you’ve used these strategies and to learn from missed opportunities. As much as we’d like our most challenging colleagues to change, even when they don’t change, you have great power to change the dynamic!

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