Posted by: Christine Donovan | April 2, 2010

Handling Difficult People: Could I be part of the problem?

I recently Googled “difficult people” and it resulted in 1,090,000 hits. A search of Amazon reveals 325 books on difficult people, and it’s probably the most frequent request I get for programs (next to resolving conflict… one in the same), so it’s definitely a hot topic!  
I wish I could say (what most of my clients seem to want) that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for winning over difficult people. There isn’t. And that’s because there are a thousand variables that are woven into each person’s inter-pretation of their situation, various nonverbal dynamics (i.e. group dynamics, company politics, etc), personality style differences, stress levels, and on and on.  
I used to offer a presentation on how to handle each of the most common difficult personality types (and I will share those in a later issue), but it seems that the more I encounter difficult people, the more I believe that if there is one common solution, it is usually tactful honesty mixed with a bit of humor and empathy.
And… we also have had to face the very real possibility that “we” may be the problem. (Imagine that!) Our interpretation of the circumstances, or the fact that our personality may magnetize certain “difficult” types toward us, or that our family background may cause us to be more reactive to certain personalities, or that we blame current situations on past relationships.   
Think about this for a moment: “Difficult people” aren’t necessarily difficult for everybody.
It’s amazing how “difficult people” manage to get married, find jobs, have friends, etc. So that should be proof enough that they aren’t perceived as difficult to everyone they meet. (Well of course, some are! But they are the minority.) So why do they seem difficult to US? If we can find the answer to that, we can pretty much solve the problem.   


 Difficult people offer a mirror to our soul.    

 I truly believe that challenging people come into our lives to teach us something about ourselves. After all, if we were only exposed to people who are just like us, people we like and are inspired by, we would live a very limited and sheltered life. We grow only through difficulty, not through complacency, so those pain-in-the-neck people serve an important purpose.  
Difficult people offer us opportunities to rise above our-selves, to take the higher road, to make mature choices. Anybody can get along with “nice” and easy-going people; it takes a person of character and substance to find inner patience and tact when faced with someone who pushes all our buttons. A “leader” is someone who can apply some maturity and grace in the face of conflict.  

What triggers our reaction.

If you’ve been working for awhile, you’ve probably noticed the variety of reactions people have to difficult people. In the first place, we’re not all frustrated by the same behavior, which should tell us something. That something is that our perceptions are subjective and have more to do with our background and temperament than the other person’s personality. 
Some of us are irritated by know-it-alls, some by extroverts, some by introverts, and even by personal habits and choices of others. And then there are bigger issues that apply too, such as ethics — lying or exaggerating, dishonesty, blaming, taking credit, showing off, etc. 
Generally, what we perceive as difficult types can be divided into three groups: 
1. Those who are simply irritating (gum chewers, hummers, loud talkers).  
2. Those with whom we have personality clashes.  
3. Those who directly affect us.  

 More tomorrow…   

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