Anyone can be difficult

by Aldric Chau

Learning how to handle troublesome individuals in an assertive way can smooth social and working relationships

Eric Sampson
executive consultant
Connect Communication Limited
Photos: Wallace Chan

Hard-to-please and unaccommodating people can make life stressful for everyone.

However, there are ways to deal with tiresome people, as banker-turned-communications consultant Eric Sampson told his audience at a recent Career Times seminar on Dealing with Difficult People.

Pointing out that "there is no such thing as a problem person, only problem behaviour", Mr Sampson noted that people's undesirable manner can be the result of their cultural, educational or social background or experiences. "Bearing this in mind makes it easier to deal with problematic behaviour," he said.

Different types

People can be "difficult" in a number of different ways, Mr Sampson noted. The "no person", for example, is always quick to point out why something will not work. This sub-group tends to be stubborn and resistant to change. In direct contrast is the "yes person" that appears to agree with everything, but constantly fails to live up to expectations.

Two other extremes are the "passive" types that never take a firm stand and the "dictators" that are always trying to intimidate others into accepting their points of view.

The biggest public enemy of all is the "know-it-all" person, Mr Sampson said. Members of this group are typically arrogant and defensive, always believing that they are right about everything and criticise others brutally without reservation.

Most people tend to either walk away from or confront people displaying any of the characteristics above, but Mr Sampson offered a different approach — looking at the situation in a different light and trying to understand the behaviour. "Focus on the issues involved rather than the individual," he advised.

The most important rule in dealing with a demanding or unaccommodating character is being assertive, he said.

Fight or flight

"When confronting behaviour across the spectrum, ranging from the aggressive to the submissive, it is important to always aim for moderation," Mr Sampson said, adding that being assertive is mature conduct involving direct, confident and controlled communication without offending others.

"The first step is to identify any concerns and to take the initiative to talk about the other party's needs and views. If that does not work, you should repeat what you've said before, for example, 'I still believe this is the right way to go' or 'I still need more resources for this project'."

Although the person may reject this, it is important to clearly state discrepancies between what had been agreed on and what is actually happening, he added. At the same time, it is essential to avoid creating any negative feelings by choosing words carefully and remaining calm and collected. There is a fine line between aggression and assertiveness.

Mr Sampson said that fears can turn anyone into an aggressive, difficult person. Stressful situations cause people to react with the "fight or flight" reflex, an intrinsic emotional response driving an urge to either combat or escape. By not controlling this, the situation can get worse. It is therefore important for people involved in such a scenario to carefully manage their emotions.

Taking action

Someone at the receiving end of confronting behaviour should try not to take it personally, as the anger is often not aimed at the specific person but rather at the situation.

By listening patiently, it is possible to let someone furious vent and get the frustration off his or her chest. "The idea is to show attentiveness without offering an on-the-spot logical explanation," Mr Sampson stressed.

Another tip is to listen "actively", reading between the lines and trying to understand the reasons behind the action. By identifying a person's emotional drivers, it is possible to get the bigger picture, which often makes things easier.

Finally, people should never tell an angry person to "calm down", as this will inevitably stir up even stronger emotion, he cautioned.

Since there is no quick-fix solutions to handle different types of difficult people perfectly every time and every problem is unique, it depends on the situation whether it is best to compromise, or to avoid, accommodate or confront the person. "However, the ultimate goal is to achieve a win-win situation." Mr Sampson emphasised.

In conclusion, he said the best way to handle problematic individuals are encapsulated in the acronym CAP, standing for "concern", "ask" and "position". However difficult the person is, it is vital to first identify everyone's concerns, ask questions that can lead to constructive action and then stand firm.

Simple rules

  • Communicate well — Listen carefully when people talk, and ask open-ended questions to gain valuable insight
  • Act normally —B y avoiding or behaving differently around difficult people, they will become even more trying
  • Try to be understanding — Put yourself in other people's shoes and consider their viewpoints
  • Don't take it personally — It is the person's demeanour and not the person himself that is unacceptable
  • Understand fears — More often than not, people act aggressively simply because they are out of their comfort zone

Taken from Career Times 30 October 2009, p. B7
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