Cross-posted from WinWinWorkplace.com.
Several years ago a woman told me the following story. While in a grocery store, shopping for family provisions, she accidentally and painfully ran over her toe with a heavily laden shopping cart — at which time, under her breath, she yelled at her husband, “You idiot!” She told me that it was at that moment she knew it was time for her to get into therapy. She realized with much embarrassment that not only did her husband not violate her big toe, but he wasn’t even in the store! Her story is humorous but probably not too far from our own experiences in which we blame someone else for our unhappiness. In the part of her mind where most of us live out our lives — the subconscious — the problem was and will always be … someone else.
One of my first goals when facilitating a workshop on the topic of “Managing Difficult People” is to dispute the very myth of the “difficult person.” The difficulty with the concept of a difficult person is establishing exactly who the difficult person is. We almost always experience the “other person” as difficult. In the case of the woman in the grocery store, she saw her husband as the difficult person, when in fact he wasn’t even there.
Often when facilitating this topic at a workshop, I will ask the participants a simple question: “Is 50°F cold or hot?” I almost always get the same response: “It depends.” And so it does. If you were at an outdoor dinner party in Los Angeles in June, 50 degrees would be very chilly. If you were in Chicago in February, you would be enjoying a welcome warm spell. I use this to illustrate the subjectivity with which we identify the difficult person. “Is the problem the other person, or is it me?” Usually it is both. Few people would argue that zero degrees Fahrenheit is cold, and that some people are truly and exclusively problematic. Likewise, most would agree that 100 degrees Fahrenheit is hot, and that you or I are sometimes an insufferable ass (without provocation from anyone else). But most often a difficult relationship is a complex, subjective interaction between two (perhaps more) triggered, reactive people.
I define a “difficult person” as anyone who makes us into a difficult person. In other words, anyone who “makes us” react or get thrown out off balance. Otherwise, the person or the situation is just a challenge, to which we have to respond.
You have more than likely heard the story of a realtor saying, “What are the three most important things to consider in buying a property?” The answer is always, “Location, location, location!” Similarly, the first three principles of managing “difficult people” are equally compelling. In order to manage a so-called “difficult person,” you must:
- Manage your self first,
- Manage your self first, and (yes, you guessed it)
- Manage your self first!
There are a few good reasons for this. First and foremost, we have actual control only over ourselves. Like in driving, we really have access only to our own steering wheel, gas pedal, and brakes. When we try to drive another person’s car from the passenger’s side, we will usually cause an accident.
Secondly, when we change ourselves and respond positively, we actually change the interpersonal dynamic of an interaction. When we are different, the dynamics of the interaction change.
Lastly, managing yourself first is simply the right thing to do. It is a generally accepted principle in our society that a person of integrity is a person who takes responsibility for his or her own actions. It is hard to respect a person who is constantly making up excuses and blaming others for their own woes and poor behavior. On the other hand, we honor a person who stands up and takes responsibility for their side of the equation.
So what does this have to do with business success and profitability? Everything. As much as we’d like to think that the success of a business is entirely about “business,” the truth is that success in business is significantly impacted by relationships; and how we address relationship challenges informs everything about the culture and leadership of our organizations. It is easy to handle relationships when they are going well. The real challenge — what divides the stars from the seat-warmers — is how you handle relational challenges. So how you lead a derailed team, discipline a wayward employee, motivate an under-productive sales force, or handle your “difficult” boss or board determines a great deal about your success. If you are able to manage yourself and your reactivity — by responding with calmness, clarity, and respect — even under trying circumstances, you will more than likely enjoy a positive outcome.
In order to successfully manage the many and unavoidable interpersonal challenges — previously referred to as “difficult people” — we start and perhaps end with our own responsibility — or, if you will, “response-ability.” You see, the problem essentially comes down to first managing our own reactivity. And if you find that difficult to do in spite of all your best efforts, then don’t be afraid or too prideful to:
- Get Honest … about your reactivity; owning it is the first step to fixing it.
- Get Feedback … from trusted advisors who know you; often we have blind spots.
- Get Help … read a book, take a class, find a mentor, or hire a coach; as human beings, we were not designed to do this alone.
Wishing you a response-able life.