Collaborating with difficult people; what it takes to get along with others

“There’s nowt so queer as folk.” – old English proverb
collaborating with difficult people

Coping with an awkward squad

Some people we like and some we don’t. Similarly, there are some people (hopefully not too many) who don’t care too much for us. Sometimes we find people behave badly towards us and sometimes (hopefully not too often) we are less than courteous in our treatment of others. In a world that is populated with people of many and varied values, goals, cultural backgrounds, attitudes and life experiences that’s to be expected. If we can simply avoid these difficult people and the uncomfortable or unpleasant situations they create, all well and good. But sometimes we can’t ignore them. They might be an important client, or a colleague, or a manager, or our partner’s parents, and then we have to find ways of getting along with them.

Knowing me; knowing you (aha)

The cornerstone of dealing with people in general (and people we find difficult or challenging in particular) is empathy i.e. the ability to share another person’s feelings, as if they were your own.

With the exception of psychopaths, humans are born with an in-built capacity for empathy, and that’s reflected in the ability to mirror behaviour. For example, when a baby cries, another baby will cry: when a baby yawns, another baby will yawn. As we develop, we get much more complex understandings of how to ‘put ourselves’ in someone else’s shoes and imagine their experiences. Research with jurors in the US, however, shows that the natural tendency is to be more empathic towards those who look or act like us. So that can lead to unfair treatment where the accused seems too ‘different’ from those who are judging them.

A key attribute of using empathy really effectively then is to be able to get a sense of how someone from a background different to our own might think and feel. Of course, ‘understanding’ someone’s feelings is not the same as agreeing with them. It’s entirely possible to fully appreciate someone’s point of view and think them wrong, or misguided, or maybe even malicious. But ‘understanding’ is the first step to be able to take meaningful action. And sometime the act of understanding is enough, in and of itself, to improve a situation.  So, we begin addressing any awkward person, or difficult situation, by thinking about what’s driving their behaviour; because for sure, in their mind, what they are doing makes perfect sense.  And once we have an insight into their motivation we can have some ideas about how to respond effectively to them.

See people not bodies

Rick Hanson the neuropsychologist and author has an interesting view on developing empathy, which can be useful in the setting of having to collaborate with a difficult person.

He argues that when we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, etc. 
In effect, the mind summarises and simplifies many details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do.”

This labelling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials, but this categorising has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., the ‘pretty woman’, the ‘authority figure’) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by, or blame, or ignore someone you’ve labelled as this or that.

So, Hanson suggests that when you talk with someone (maybe someone from another department you are collaborating with), be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, fisherman, donor to charity, reader of detective novels, etc. etc. Recognise some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness. Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later, perhaps you can see changes happening in the other person. This helps to develop a greater understanding of the other person and to encourage a more balanced and calmer way of interacting with them. As Hanson says, “the more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.”

The art of Non-Violent Communication

The psychologist, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015) developed the idea of Non-Violent Communication in the 1960’s.

His approach was to not try and get your own way when faced with a challenging conversation.  And also, to not treat people as ‘enemies’ or ‘competitors’ and to avoid making judgements or attributing blame. Instead he said to ‘Identify your Needs’ or desires, and also uncover their underlying needs e.g. acceptance, security, consistency, integrity, effectiveness etc.

So, he encouraged people to ask themselves (and the other party) “what do I/you need or value in this situation…?”

E.g. Identify your Needs: “I don’t feel I am getting the information I need to be comfortable that the project is on track. I need more data and more certainty that the work is going to be completed on time.”

Once the needs are out in the open then it’s important to explicitly acknowledge them (and have them empathically acknowledge your needs in return).

It is then possible to Formulate Requests that will lead to the needs being met. The requests should be firm and clear but not be phrased as a ‘demand’, nor should you use a negative tone, such as sarcasm.

He recommended using the format, “Would you be willing to…” Or “I would like you…” Or, “Would you like it if I…”.

E.g. Formulate Requests: Would you be willing to email me a weekly update, every Friday morning before 12 o’clock, using these four Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)?

Then it’s a case of Obtaining Feedback e.g. “Is this something you can live with” … “Am I on the right track with this conversation?”

It’s important to understand that this process is a two-way street: both sides’ underlying needs must be uncovered, acknowledged and met.

Collaborative behaviours

The US State Department has published a list of behaviours, based on a review of the research on effective communication behaviours, which they feel drive collaborative working in ‘day to day’ and face to face interactions.

This way of working will also help when dealing with difficult people or challenging conversations. They include:

Pausing: Pausing slows down the discussion and signals to others that their ideas are worth thinking about. It dignifies their contribution, so builds rapport and implicitly encourages future participation. It also, of course, creates time for people to think and that means it’s less likely that someone will blurt out something ‘hurtful’ or ‘unhelpful’.

Summarising: A well-known study by the psychologist Neil Rackham showed that expert communicators summarise twice as often as average ones.  A summary helps members of a team hear and understand each other as they evaluate data and formulate decisions.  It (like pausing) slows the conversation down and checks understanding.  Of course, there is a clear link to demonstrating ’empathy’ here.

Asking questions: Open questions, motivated by curiosity, increase the clarity and precision of a person’s thinking. Interestingly, the Rackham study found that expert communicators ask twice as many questions as average ones.

Putting forward ideas: it is vital that collaborative groups nurture suggestions, as they are the heart of a meaningful discussion. Of course, this can be done in line with the principles of non-violent communication e.g. “Would you be willing to…”

Notice your own and other people’s body language:  communication is generally ‘smoother’ when someone is not only aware of what he or she is saying, but also how it is said (i.e. tone of voice) and how others are responding to it. This ties in with the non-violent communication concepts of not blaming or judging people.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry: Both inquiry (asking questions) and advocacy (making proposals) are necessary components of collaborative work. Inquiry provides for greater understanding. Advocacy leads to decision-making. A common mistake is to bring premature closure to problem identification (inquiry for understanding) and rush into problem resolution (advocacy for a specific remedy or solution).  So again (to link with the ideas of non-violent communication) be sure to take the time to really uncover what the underlying needs or desires are in any given situation.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in that meant you had to engage with difficult people. For the ones that turned out well think about why things ended up being OK. For the ones that went badly, think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?

Try reading: this thoughtful article on the nature of empathy by Seung Chan Lim…

Have a look at Dr. Marshall Rosenberg talking about non-violent communication on You Tube. (10 minutes)

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our in-house half-day, master class on Self Awareness & Effective Team Work…

Or perhaps think about some ‘one to one’ executive coaching to help develop your ability to deal with difficult people or situations….

And to end with a useful piece of advice on dealing with people (difficult or otherwise) from the management guru Stephen Covey;

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood”