A toxic work environment creates real distress. We help manage workplace conflict between employees’ or between employees and management by teaching both conflict resolution and communication skills as well as leadership and management skill building.
DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE AT WORK
In the workplace, as in the rest of our lives, there are people that are difficult to communicate with in order to solve problems, resolve conflicts or negotiate solutions. Some difficulties arise purely because of changing business factors, such as mergers, downsizing or changing economic conditions. Other human factors, like diversity issues, pace of technological change and general conflict around employee workers’ rights, may create additional stresses to accommodate.
The source of many personality clashes and conflict can be attributed to our inability to deal effectively with difficult people. These conflicts can be as simple as differing individual work or personal habits, or family and personal pressures. They can be as complex as a general negativity, feeling threatened or competitive, or a lack of validation, personal prejudices, bias or judgments of others. However, Dr. Paul Standal finds that a lack of awareness and an inability to communicate effectively with difficult people exacerbate personality clashes and are, by far, the greatest contributor to workplace stress and employee disability and turnover.
Everyone is confronted by co-workers, whether supervisors or subordinates, who drive us nuts and who contribute significantly to our work stress. We are constantly trying to manage them through differing styles of conflict resolution and negotiation, like avoidance, accommodation, collaboration or confrontation.
In a book that has become a classic, Coping with Difficult People, Robert Bramson identifies about a dozen different types of difficult people, based on thirty years of experience in working with public and private organizations.
Dealing With Common Types of Difficult People
Below are some suggestions for dealing with varying types of difficult people:
The hostile-aggressive type of people are divided up into the “Sherman tanks,” the “snipers,” and the “exploders,” who carry a lot of anger and/or frustration into the workspace. They are unable to or have difficulty collaborating and cannot listen or compromise.
The Steamroller/Sherman Tank Types
If the issue is not particularly important to you, your best bet is probably to avoid or accommodate. Give the person a wide berth, or give in to small things to calm the person down. If you choose another course, it’s a good idea to begin by letting the person blow off steam. Then calmly and surely present your point of view.
The Undercover Attacker/Sniper Type
If you decide that avoidance or learning to live with these attacks is not for you, the best way to deal with this type of person is to surface the attack and then to get to the underlying reasons. Let the attacker know you are onto him by saying something like, “Was that meant as a put-down?” If the undercover attacker tries to deny it, present your evidence.
The Angry Child Exploder
The first principle to use to avoid escalating things further (unless you decide to walk away from all of this) is to let the person finish yelling and screaming, until he or she has finished venting the burst of emotion. Or reassure the person that you are listening and are ready to be responsive to calm him. The idea is to help the person feel he is still in control, while calming him down. Then, when the person is calm again, just act like the person is an ordinary, reasonable person, as if the tantrum incident never happened.
Who Always Have Something to Gripe About
The key to dealing with the complainer is to begin by listening. It doesn’t matter whether the complaints seem true or unfounded. The complainer wants desperately to be heard. You should acknowledge or validate the complainer by showing that you have understood what he is saying, perhaps by repeating in other words a capsule description of what he has said. Then, once the complainer has poured out his basic complaint, seek some closure. Try to shift the person into a problem-solving mode.
The Quiet Clams and Silent Types: Who are Silent and Unresponsive
The key to resolving a conflict, unless you want to avoid the issue entirely, is to get the person to open up. You might ask some open-ended questions, inviting more than a yes, no, or nod response. Keep probing or encouraging the person to speak, and even acknowledge that it may be difficult for the person to share his feelings. Show that you are willing to be supportive and empathic, no matter what the person says. When the time comes, provide positive reinforcement. Show you appreciate that the person is talking to you, whether or not you agree or like what the person is saying.
The Naysayers and Perennial Pessimists: Who Find a Reason Why Anything Suggested Won’t Work
Help the person feel more in control by showing him the ways in which he does have some ability to change what he doesn’t like, or to prevent things from going wrong and show there is another point of view, and describe realistic alternatives. If you can, use specific examples of past successes under similar circumstances, or at least offer your optimistic view that something can still be done. If you see the negative person is strongly invested in his position that things won’t work, it may be better not to argue.
The Super-Agreeable: Who Eagerly Say Yes to Just About Everything and Appear to Offer You Support but Seldom or Never Follow Through
Assuming you think it is worthwhile to continue relating to this person, the key to resolving the conflict is to show that you really do want the person to be truthful. Insist that you want to know what the person really thinks, and only want the person to do what he really can or will do. You want to emphasize what bothers you is not whether the person agrees to things or not, but the person’s lack of follow-through on what he or she does agree to do.
The Know-It-All Experts: Who Act Superior to Everyone Else Because They Think They Know Everything and Want Everyone Else to Know It
The first step is to recognize this is happening. Don’t let yourself get sucked into this person’s view of the world or a particular situation. Try to find out what underlying factors are causing the person to act or think like this. Wait for an interlude when things are calm. Validate, but, at the same time, assertively give the person your position based on fact. Aim for a time between incidents when you can broach the topic.
The Indecisive and Stallers: People Who Have Trouble Making Decisions Because They are Afraid of Being Wrong or Not Perfect
One approach is simply to take a more forceful position yourself (i.e. the competitive approach), and assert the decision you want. Let the indecisive feel comfortable with your control, or even feel as if he or she contributed to the process. You need to find out why the indecisive is hesitating so you can get rid of his block. Show you are supportive and won’t be hurt by whatever the indecisive decides.
Other Common Behavioral Types
The Perfectionist: People Who are Overly Compulsive
They obsess over a project and never feel they (or you) have done it right enough. They drive themselves and others around them nuts and projects take much longer to complete or are never finished.
The Innocent Liar: Who Avoid Responsibility or Undermine Others Through Denial
These people are particularly toxic because of their gossip and back stabbing.
The Resentful Altruist: The “Look Gooders” Who Feel Victimized and Resentful Underlying Anything They Do
They will take on way too much and then use this to justify their misery.
You can probably think of many other people with personality styles that make them difficult to deal with.
General Principles for Dealing with Difficult People
Work through the emotional charges triggered by a difficult person.
Try not to take the other person’s behavior personally.
Notice if you are finding this person difficult because he or she reminds you of someone with whom you had bad experiences in the past.
Use creative visualization, affirmations, or other calming techniques to let the other person release some of his or her emotions.
Use communication or listening techniques to let the other person release some of his or her emotions.
If you are becoming emotionally upset because you are picking up the difficult person’s particular way of viewing the world, notice when you are doing this so you can stop yourself.
Think about why the difficult person is being difficult, what the difficult person may need or want that is leading him or her to be difficult.
Overcome the responsibility trap with a difficult person.
Move away from a discussion about the past, and more towards one concerning the future, in order to emphasize the need to look past the causes and towards solutions.
Use Communication to Get to the Root of the Difficulty
Pay attention to non-verbal cues that suggest a discrepancy between what the speaker is thinking or feeling and what he or she is saying.
Watch for hidden or wrong assumptions—your own or the other person’s.
Work toward open channels of communication.
Learn to listen well.
Express your own feelings and needs in a non-threatening way, using “I statements.”
Finally, it is important to be flexible in your style of communication and conflict resolution, depending on the style of the difficult person you are dealing with, the situation to be dealt with and your investment in the outcome. Like learning several dance steps, being able to choose from various conflict and negotiation styles of communication to suit the situation is the best and most effective way to deal with difficult people.
The Competitive Style
You strive primarily to satisfy your concerns at the expense of others by forcing people to do it your way, arguing and pulling rank. This can be a good style to use if:
The issue is very important to you, and you have a big stake in getting your way.
You have authority to make the decision, and it seems clear that this is the best way.
A decision has to be made quickly, and you have the power to do so.
You feel you have no other options and you have nothing to lose.
You are in an emergency situation where immediate, decisive action is necessary.
You can’t get a group to agree, feel you are at an impasse, and someone must get the group to move ahead.
The Avoidant Style
You know you can’t and probably won’t win in the conflict.
You want to buy more time.
The situation is complex and difficult to change, so you feel tackling it will just be a wasted effort.
You feel that others have a better chance of resolving the situation.
There’s danger in trying to deal with the situation at the moment.
The Collaborative Style
When both you and the other party are aware of the problem and are clear about what you want.
When both you and the other party are willing to put some thought and work into finding a solution.
When you both have the skills to articulate your concerns and to listen to what others have to say.
When you and others in the conflict have a similar amount of power.
The Compromising Style
You give up a little bit of what you want to get the rest of what you want, and the other parties in the conflict do the same
This is a good style to use:
When you have the same amount of power as someone else and you are both committed to mutually exclusive goals.
When you want to achieve resolution quickly, because of time pressures or because it’s more economical and efficient that way.
When you can settle for a temporary resolution.
When you will benefit from a short-term gain.
When you haven’t been able to work out a solution through either collaboration or the more competitive/forceful approach.
When the goals are not extremely important to you.
From Dealing With Difficult People by Dennis Higashiguchi
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