Dealing with Difficult People

CEOs have to deal with difficult people all the time — and sometimes they themselves are the difficult ones. What are some proven ways to deal with difficult people?

To find out, I interviewed Pamela Cournoyer, founder and CEO of Communicate with CLASS. Pamela addresses conflict in ways that maintain honor and respect for all. No paint-by-number, plug and play programs with Pamela, she is about real life, real people with divergent thoughts, pain thresholds, attitudes and levels of receptivity. This kind of work requires true people-reading skills and nuanced compassion. Pamela offers management coaching, consulting and interventions for the unhappy campers in your organization.

With a background of managing conflict that covers 17 years in law enforcement, Pamela related several stories including from her time teaching conflict resolution in a hotbed of partisan conflict, Kosovo.

Regular readers know I love “constructive conflict” — that’s where we fight over how to do the work even better — and that only happens in an environment of very high trust. When trust is low, the conflicts tend to be destructive — they are “interpersonal conflict.” That sort of thing reduces whatever trust is present, and lowers performance for all concerned.

How much conflict is there in business?

Lots. Workplace surveys show the average worker is annoyed about ten times a day, and about 25% of workers experience anger at least once a day.

Then, we have very different communication styles, different assumptions and backgrounds.

This means we constantly have at hand the kindling for lighting the fires of conflict.

Pamela’s background allows her to view workplace conflict in perspective, and that’s the first guidance she offers: keep it in perspective. Realize that conflict is first and foremost in our minds.

For example, we imagine “You didn’t put paper in the printer because you knew I was going to need it.” Or, “You said hello to Joe and you didn’t say hello to me, and that proves you’re mad at me.” Not everyone does this, however many of us do assume the worst — we assume negative intentions, we assume malice. And now we’re creating a conflict in our minds, and that becomes a real conflict in the workplace.

Eckhart Tolle relates a story (this is my recollection of it) about two monks on a sacred pilgrimage. Crossing a stream they encounter a woman wanting to cross the other way, but she cannot do it alone. One monk carries her across on his back while the other looks on in disapproval, and they continue their pilgrimage. Four hours later, the second monk breaks the silence to say “You shouldn’t have done that. It violates our rules about how we interact with the world when we’re taking a holy journey.” The first monk says in surprise, “You’re still carrying her around? I set her down four hours ago.”

We do that all the time — carrying around our beliefs, issues, grudges, or resentments — and creating conflict in our minds.

How am I Contributing?

The first thing Pamela recommends we do actively is to look at how each of us is contributing to the conflict — any contribution at all, including having conflict-feeding beliefs or assumptions. This is a highly empowering tool because as soon as you see how you’re contributing, you can immediately change it. You don’t have to make others change, or wait for them to change.

Learn to ask — Who am I? How do I respond to irritations? What are my patterns of thought and behavior? How do my patterns contribute to the conflicts I’m experiencing? Once you begin to see the pattern, you can start to unlock your contributions and step out of the pattern. Then you can eliminate many of the conflicts you are unwittingly helping create or maintain.

When Did I Do That?

Another technique is to ask, “When did I ever do what they are doing?” When someone else takes the last drop of coffee and doesn’t make a new pot – or drives too slowly in the fast lane – I ask whether I ever did anything similar, and why. When I realize I’ve done it too, I start to forgive them and they stop irritating me. If you can’t go that far, then at least send a blessing. When you send the blessing you help keep your own head in a positive place.

Learn to Coach Conflict Resolution

When two of your subordinates are the ones in conflict, the most vital thing you as a manager can do is listen. And you need to listen much more deeply than you normally do.

Pamela is frequently called in to “hot” conflicts, and it always is caused or made worse by inadequate listening. You need to hear the intention. When you don’t hear the positive intention — when you perceive disrespect — you get sucked into conflict.

When you listen in depth, it’s much more than just about the words people are using. “It’s never what people are saying — it’s what’s underneath.” (See this article on listening or listen to the interview on listening.)

Don’t get pulled into being a judge of disputes. Let those who are in disagreement work through their conflict themselves, while you guide them through these techniques. That way they will become more capable of it in the future, and you’ll have less work over time.

What if you’re not yet capable of being that coach? You can always call in someone like Pamela who teaches managers how to be that coach. There’s a powerful investment in permanently reducing interpersonal conflict in the workplace.

Listen to the whole interview here.

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