How To Work With Difficult People

Three weeks ago I wrote about “winning” and equated the concept less with the sports or business arena and more with becoming a better version of ourselves. I both highlighted and reinterpreted a powerful model from Derek Sivers with four steps that build upon each other: managing and directing your thoughts proactively, adding value and contributing to others, mastering ‘people skills,’ and engaging in continuous learning. During the last few weeks I expanded on the first and second principle.

This week we tackle the topic of mastering people skills. Of all these concepts, this is the most challenging one for me to grok. Therefore, since I have a long way to go on this front, I think I’ll write an article about it. Yeah that’s right.

And as I scratch my furrowed brow, I recollect a course I took as part of a management training program fifteen years ago while working at the former Inktomi Corporation. Titled, “How To Work With Difficult People,” it was taught by Stan Slap, a then locally well known HR-corporate development training guru in the Bay Area who has since gone onto the big time with books like Bury My Heart at Conference Room B.

While my memory on the details is fuzzy and possibly inaccurate, I recall that we took a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) evaluation. In his classically irreverent style, Stan laced us with his interpretation of the details and effectiveness of the MBTI. Yet during almost the entire course we never touched upon how to actually work with difficult people until the very last day.

We received our results in a paper binder, and Stan also regaled us with a packet of goodies: a pencil with his company logo, a small pad of paper also with logo, and a small mirror, among other items. After we shared with our classmates what MBTI types we were, Stan asked us if, FINALLY, we wanted to learn how to work with difficult people. Of course we did.

He then told us to hold up the mirror and look at ourselves. Stan then yelled out in a combination mocking and serious tone that WE are the difficult people we need to learn how to work with, that WE are the a-holes, so to speak. We burst out in laughter, and yet we all fully ‘got it.’ This was a splash of icy cold water in the face designed to increase our empathy toward others.

The lesson? Our opportunity in working more effectively with so-called difficult people is to first get to know ourselves and our tendencies better, and recognize that in the eyes of at least certain others, we are the ones who are deemed challenging.

While I strongly recommend spending $50 to complete an MBTI evaluation if you have not done so already, the MBTI certainly has its skeptics. My suggestion: let the results guide and help you become more aware of your tendencies. But do not let the MBTI define you. And do not label and limit yourself based on your type. A placard on your cubicle wall with your four letter personality type printed in bold 250 point font? Please don’t do that.

The keys:

  • Increase self awareness — always a great first step — by getting to know yourself better. A great way to do this is to take the MBTI (strongly recommended) or a similar evaluation.
  • Understand your preferences without labeling yourself and potentially limiting your personal growth. Thoughts and remarks like, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” are an indicator of this. Yes, you may have ingrained tendencies and preferences, but you are not a boulder and those characteristics are therefore not set in stone.
  • Accept yourself fully just as you are. This does not mean you shouldn’t strive for continuous improvement and slough off the dead skin you no longer want, but don’t chop off your arm.
  • Appreciate that the world is filled with all kinds of people with their own personality TYPES, some of whom are just like you, and others who are insanely different.
  • Wear their shoes. Think about whatever situation you’re mutually engaged in from their perspective.
  • Accept them as they are, and work to define the multiple elements you have in common or agree upon.
  • Better yet, practice the Golden Rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated.
  • Recognize that you will inevitably screw up. Apologize when you can muster the courage, forgive yourself, and try and do better the next time out.

To this last point, there may be those people you find difficult if not impossible to relate with or who you believe detract from your peace of mind, despite your best efforts. It is OK to detach from them, even if they are work colleagues and you do so on a purely emotional basis. But if you find yourself doing this by habit rather than exception, then you would be well advised to revisit that old mirror.

And now, please take a seat on my pleather sofa and let’s dig a bit deeper.

The MBTI is merely a tool. It is a HOW. The WHAT is understanding yourself and others. You want to do this in order to reduce or eliminate the instances in which you get triggered by people. This is because when you do get all fired up, it is most often your issue and not theirs. It could be you are reminded of something you don’t like about yourself or simply because you have festering and yet quite possibly below-the-surface thoughts of insecurity and inadequacy — that you are simply not ‘enough.’

Here is the rub. When you are in the heat of the moment, blurting out that you are an INTJ* to the person you are having a conflict with won’t help you. What can you do instead?

Recognize that you are fully responsible for owning your own energy and try to be as consistent as possible at all times, with all people, and in all engagements. Will you ‘fail’ at this? I don’t know about you but I sure as hell do, and all the time. Oh, and trust me, I have tried and am here to tell you that you cannot change other people.

The great news is you can most certainly change your own thoughts and those seemingly deeply held beliefs you harbor. This includes modifying your own perspectives about other people. Yes that’s right. Just as you shouldn’t label and box yourself in, be sure not to do this with other folks.

Furthermore, and as my wife often reminds me, place more importance on getting along than in being ‘right’ or ‘winning.’ This is because getting along IS winning. It doesn’t mean you have to blindly agree with someone on every point they mention in a meeting. But think about the HOW and focus on that there Golden Rule. You can have differing perspectives without getting all kinds of freaky crazy.

Finally, my wife also wanted me to tell you that if you don’t remember anything else I’ve written one hour from now, simply be willing to fully love and accept all of yourself. Because by doing so and ensuring your own bucket is as filled up as possible, you will be a much more even-keeled person whenever you engage with others, making the planet a better place for all of us. Seriously!

* I am an INTJ.