Dealing with Difficult People, by Rob Redenbach

One of the most common things I hear when working with emerging leaders – and even some established leaders – is that they don’t like confrontation. This is usually expressed in a tone that suggests it’s a personal weakness or a failure of character. When I explore this view, the response is typically vague: ‘I’m just not cut out for confrontation. It really gets to me.’ When I ask them to be more specific, they’ll say things like, ‘I can feel my heart pounding,’ or ‘I feel physically sick.’ My response to these complaints is ‘Excellent!’

Regardless of your age or your gender, when you are faced with a significant challenge you will respond physically – even though the optimum solution might be cerebral. Your heart rate will increase. Your body’s stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) will be released into your bloodstream and will override the calming chemicals of serotonin and melatonin. Your vision will narrow, as your pupils dilate. Your breathing rate will change and you may experience shaking legs, a dry throat or a stutter when you speak.

All of these reactions are predictable and not one of them indicates that you are incapable of dealing with whatever has triggered them. Even the most naturally confident person will experience such reactions when pressure is applied. In fact, if you don’t experience some type of physiological change you are probably operating at a suboptimal level. What is important to understand is that the changes taking place are a natural part of your survival mechanism. They indicate that you have identified something important; that your focus is narrowing to deal with an immediate situation that needs your full attention.

The days of Vikings raiding your property are long past, but fall 90 days behind in your mortgage repayments and there is a very real possibility you’ll lose your home, not to Vikings but rather to the financial institution you owe money to. Receiving a foreclosure notice in the 21st century triggers the same physiological response as the sight of marauding Berserkers did a thousand years ago.

It is not weakness to dislike confrontation – it is normal. If you enjoy confrontation there is probably something wrong with you. Most people, including many senior and very successful leaders, will go to considerable lengths to avoid a personal confrontation, including compromising a great deal. This is perfectly acceptable – but only up to a point. It becomes a problem when you view your dislike of confrontation as proof that you can’t deal with it. And the danger is that if you are prepared to do virtually anything to avoid it, you will compromise your personal and professional standards.

Whether you like it or not, confrontation – ranging from passive aggression to blatant hostility – is a fact of life. Some people use confrontation as a calculated method for getting their own way. As a leader you have a responsibility to foster a work climate where your team feels appreciated and respected – and safe. Therefore, you need strategies for reducing the potentially destructive influence of difficult people who use confrontation to undermine others. The six techniques that follow are by no means exhaustive, but they do represent a solid start.

1) Breathe. Yoga masters, martial artists, media commentators, singers, theatre performers and experienced trial lawyers are just some of the many professionals who understand the practical value of controlled, diaphragmatic breathing.

Whether you characterise your response as apprehension, a challenge or, most emotionally charged, downright fear, the physiological changes that take place during a heated debate or a difficult conversation prepare you for action – the timeless fight or flight. The trouble is, those same physiological responses can seriously impede your capacity to say what needs saying and do what needs to be done.

A simple, but extremely effective technique for relieving pressure is to focus on the rhythmic movement of your lungs as you deliberately slow your breathing and take controlled, deep breaths. Don’t go overboard in this: just make sure you avoid shallow, rapid breathing. By controlling your breathing in this way you will reduce (not eliminate, just reduce) the symptoms of your body’s physical response to the demands of the situation. Also, deep breathing improves control by damping the intensity of the emotional response which in turn helps you to enhance your capacity to recall data, select the right words and generally appear calmer and more confident. This is a classic example of focusing on your circle of control, rather than your circle of concern. You may not be able to control your opponent, but you can control your self and a worthwhile place to start that is by controlling your breathing.

Cynics, quick to belittle anything that doesn’t come with a 100% guarantee, dismiss the application of breath control as a way of improving performance in a pressure situation. Perhaps those cynics know something I don’t, but I can vouch that controlled breathing has created a reliable refuge for me in some particularly difficult situations, including having bullets fly inches above my head during a road-side ambush in Baghdad and, far worse, holding my wife’s hand as we watched our newborn daughter struggle for life in Intensive Care.

2) Shift focus. Those who seem to relish confrontation often practise bluff and brinkmanship far more than they invest in the pursuit of knowledge and emotional intelligence. Factor in most people’s reluctance to deal with confrontation, and you can see how the difficult person frequently gets what they want – not because of any real skill on their part, but because their opponent (more accurately their victim) defaults to compromise or outright capitulation. This becomes the standard script both parties follow. The difficult person capitalises on this and in the process reinforces an egocentric attitude of entitlement. To break that pattern and weaken the seemingly impenetrable facade of an aggressor is not easy, but it is possible – if you can shift your mindset regarding fear.

Fear is a form of pain. Everyone feels pain in one form or another. Most people think about their own pain before they think about the pain of someone else. However, in the process of thinking about the pain of another person, you stop thinking about your own pain. Understanding this subtle truth has enormous value.

As you stand in front of your opponent, reduce your own fear by reminding yourself that your opponent has doubts, apprehensions and inadequacies as well. You might not know what they are, but they have them! Even when Mike Tyson was the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world he stated, ‘I have fear every time I walk into the ring. I think that anyone who says they aren’t afraid is either lying or crazy.’ And if they are crazy? Still tell yourself they have fear. Even if it’s not true, you are shifting your focus in a useful way. On a conscious or a subconscious level the difficult person will read the positive changes in your body language, voice projection, breathing rates, etc. These changes are part of a new script, and you – not your opponent – are the author.

3) Set boundaries. If you have children, whether they are toddlers or teenagers, you already know how important it is to set boundaries. It is exactly the same when dealing with difficult people. When someone says or does something that is inappropriate, unethical or unsafe, you need to voice your objections and concerns – and you need to do this sooner rather than later. Hoping that someone’s behaviour will improve on its own is not a path an effective leader can afford to take. Hope is not a plan. It doesn’t work in parachuting and it doesn’t work in birth control. And it most certainly doesn’t work when dealing with difficult people.

4) Use authority. It is entirely appropriate to express your authority. You can convey it in terms of ownership. Telling your opponent ‘This is my project,’ ‘This is my client,’ ‘That person is a part of my team,’ or ‘I’m responsible for that decision’ etc., demonstrates your legitimate right to voice your views. The trick is, don’t be aggressive when you state these facts. It’s not a chest beating competition. It is simply a process of communicating information in a way that establishes your right to be involved in influencing a result.

5) Paint a picture. In behavioural science research after the events of 9/11, psychologist and Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman asked people to consider travel insurance. One group was asked how much they would pay for a policy that provided $100,000 in case of death for any reason. A second group was asked how much they would pay for the same cover in case of death in a terrorism incident. The results showed that people were willing to pay far more for the latter, even though death by terrorism is statistically far less likely. This was identified as the fear factor.

Understanding people’s capacity to be influenced by fear gives you a helpful tool in defusing aggressive and obstructive behaviour in others. To harness this capacity, paint a detailed picture of the negative outcomes that could occur if they continue on their current path. Be careful not to confuse this technique with making threats: remain both conciliatory and matter-of-fact in your manner. I discuss threats in chapter two of What I Didn’t Learn at Harvard, but the key thing to understand is that only idiots use threats. Painting a picture of pain or loss is different. Your objective is to help your opponent to visualise why it’s in their best interest to change direction.

6) Offer their pride an escape route. Next to need and greed, ego, vanity and pride cause more problems in interpersonal communication than anything else. If you back someone into a corner where the only options they can see are to fight or to lose face, a lot of people will fight (not necessarily in a physical sense, but still in a way that is anything but desirable). You need to remember this universal human desire to save face, and be able to imagine what it is you would want if you were in their position. What could someone offer you that could help you hold your head up high in such a situation? A little empathy goes a long way.

When all else fails

And what if you try all of the above and you still don’t get the outcome you want or need? Tap into the collective. This means take advantage of the power of collaboration. There has been some fascinating research into the science of collective intelligence. In simple terms collective intelligence means the group will always see more, understand more and comprehend more than any one individual. Think of collective intelligence as a type of real-world Google. If you don’t understand something or if you don’t know where to begin with formulating a way forward, ask for help. Seek a different perspective.

Of course, the value of collective intelligence isn’t limited to dealing with difficult people. There isn’t a problem in the world that can’t be ameliorated by asking for help. Naturally, you can’t implement every suggestion that’s offered but you can definitely improve your understanding of available options if you tap into the collective wisdom of your peers, your friends and the people you trust and respect. Ask them what they think. Ask them if they’ve been in a situation similar to you. Ask them what they’d do if they were in your position. And remember: smart leaders don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. They just have to be smart enough not to let their ego, their vanity and their pride get in the way of a good result.