What is it that makes certain people so difficult? In the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz points to realistic optimism as a way to deal with these folks. But does telling yourself a well-crafted story really help when someone is being a jerk? Here are four ways to deal with the people who are causing you pain.
1. The Problem with Assumptions
People are difficult when they have assumptions about a situation. Typically, assumptions come to life in the form of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. These assumptions may be due to misinformation about the way things work, an overestimation of one’s own skills or a confusion about someone else’s contribution.
Danielle, a manager at a busy Austin restaurant, says that the key to dealing with assumptions is communication. “We ask our employees at our company meetings, ‘What might we be assuming here that’s holding us back?’” Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that can hurt you. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”
To deal with difficult people, put the assumptions out on the table. Call out what looks like an assumption. Maybe he thought you were going to take out the garbage last week, or she thought you were going to turn in the fourth quarter report yesterday. Often, the person isn’t quite so difficult when assumptions change.
2. What Did You Expect?
If assumptions are how things are in someone’s mind, expectations are assumptions in the future tense. Dealing with difficult people often starts with your own expectations for their behavior. We often expect a certain level of competence from our co-workers. With difficult people, that certain level is far from certain. If you haven’t made your expectations clear, you shouldn’t be surprised if you are disappointed.
“I expected that my new employee would take the initiative to connect with some key internal customers,” one Salesforce administrator confided. “But I hadn’t told her of that expectation. I thought she was being difficult, but it turns out, I was just being unclear.” Derek, an engineer, said, “Happens a lot between millennials and other generations, I’m afraid. I hate ambiguity. Spell out your expectations – I can take it – and let me get you what you need.”
3. Agree Not to Disagree
Agreement is the antidote for assumptions and expectations. Unmet expectations are often what drive difficulty between two people. Putting those expectations and assumptions out on the table is an important step toward solving the real problem, which is no agreement.
A project manager for the oil and gas industry, Jackie says that she works hard to close the loop with her team. “It’s not enough to say what you’re going to do. You can’t stop there – you have to get agreement. Agreement is what closes the loop.” Sometimes, things slip, but your agreement gives you something other than personalities to work around.
4. Use Your GPS
In my hometown of Houston, tropical storms caused many roads to be shut down and lots of highways to become impassable. But, eventually, my GPS always found a way around the blockage, even if it meant routing me in an unusual way.
Difficult people are like road blocks: Even when you work through assumptions to agreement, you still have other sources of difficulty. Those sources may be their attitude, their work ethic or even something more troubling, like their politics or personal viewpoints. Your internal GPS needs to route around those difficulties, and it always can. Maybe what your co-worker does, says or believes is a source of difficulty, but the real question is why you’re thinking about those things. Just because a train of thought shows up doesn’t mean you have to take a ride on it. Don’t make a difficult person more difficult by amplifying your thoughts about the things that drive you crazy.
In this article by Ariana Huffington, she shares a quote from Harari: “In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore.” Re-route yourself to focus on what really matters, and reach agreement with that difficult person. And if you can’t reach an agreement, here’s the good news: Your GPS can help you to go around them. If it looks like someone is so difficult that you don’t have options, think again. Are there other people or resources you could turn to during a time of difficulty? Use your internal GPS to get out of your own way, and find new resources for your journey.