Use This Strange But Effective Technique to Work with a Difficult Person

I’m often asked how it’s possible to collaborate—or even cooperate—with someone who’s belligerent, unpleasant, unfair, or inflexible. Sometimes people ask about a technique I share in my TEDx talk, “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It.” 

First, Know Where You Stand

If one colleague is complaining too much about another colleague, I ask if they believe that colleague is actually evil. This distinction is crucial because in any work group, people have differing needs and responsibilities that can put them at odds with each other—often by design. When someone else is being unhelpful or causes problems, we tend to feel like this person is actually against us. We may think about them harshly and in excessively critical and unkind ways, which in turn, can fuel gossip, backbiting, and nasty backchannel conversations. 

So far, no one has ever admitted to me that, yes, they think the other person is evil. (Keep in mind that if they did, we’d have to assess why that is and figure out what kind of behavioral coaching or rule-based discipline would resolve the situation.) Instead, they step back and recognize that although differences of purpose, opinion, or style get in their way, their opponent is not inherently a bad person.

Once you’ve gotten someone to declare that their opponent is not intrinsically evil, it’s much easier to ask them to look at the situation from that other person’s point of view: “Given their role and responsibilities, what do you think they need?” Sometimes this exercise is called perspective taking. When you can bring yourself to think about what’s going on with the other person, you can often find ways to understand them better—and feel less resentful about whatever they’re doing. 

Then, Find a Unique Way to Move Closer

Typically, just reminding people that others’ points of view will be different from their own or that they may have conflicting obligations is enough to inspire them to find new ways to bridge those differences. But some people are truly challenging to deal with. Even acknowledging why an opponent may have come to their point of view or how their structural responsibilities or positions drive their behavior might not suggest a clear idea of how to deal with them effectively. 

But if recognizing the subtleties underlying a situation doesn’t aid you in solving a problem of interpersonal dynamics, there’s a different vantage point you can take. It requires a little more imagination, but it can be a way to reconceive the relationship.

When I can’t discern why somebody is behaving the way they are after examining the structural elements, I try to imagine what they would have been like when they were nine years old. If I can see the nine-year-old, my heart softens toward them, and I think, “Okay, I can figure out how to work with that kind of kid.” But this technique is not about treating the person like a child: if you trivialize them or infantilize them, it will not work at all. You must maintain the utmost respect.

Search for the Hidden Good

What you’re looking for is the other person’s spirit or essence beneath all their years of being in workplaces and other hard or uncomfortable relationships. Find the good in them, acknowledge all the potential they have, and try to understand what may have frightened them. Thinking of them as the child they once were can show you why they’re resisting or avoiding you now. Perhaps they behave this way out of a need for survival, their beliefs about success, or their desire not to be found wrong or wanting.

If you can focus on helping that child succeed and behave well, you can expand your own spirit of care and generosity and think of new ways to interact that bring out the best in that child. Then you can evaluate these new ideas to find the ones that are most promising, and run some experiments to see which ones pan out.

And of course, you can also consider how your own instincts and responses are based on who you were as a nine-year-old. Are there are ways you could interact from a more mature and grounded version of yourself?

Let me know what happens.

Onward and upward —
LK

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