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A Strategy for Engaging and Dealing With Difficult People

Strategies for Dealing with Difficult People

This is a guest contribution by Patrick Mayfield, non-executive director of pearcemayfield.

It is always going to be a challenge when we come across people who we regard as difficult to deal with in our business and we are very likely to face this at some point. In fact in today’s business environment, there’s probably a more significant challenge of having to face this dilemma than ever before.

Factors such as increased globalization, multiculturalism and advances in technology are commonplace in 21st century business practice. Old working practices from years gone by have been turned upside down as we face increased flexible practices such as virtual working.

We are having to embrace change which is likely to have been brought about by acquisition or reorganization.

As a result of these changes, if any workforce imbalance, even if from just one person, isn’t quickly addressed, the negative impact on the smooth running of an organization can be huge.

Faced with someone who is difficult to deal with needn’t be a problem, whatever the reason for their negative behavior. The solution is to engage with them.

In fact the best solution is to put a strategy in place before you are even faced with the problem, so that you will be better prepared and get a more successful outcome should you be faced with the dilemma.

However awkward someone is, you owe it to them at the start of any conflict to listen to their point of view to make sure that you have understood and can reflect your understanding back to them.

By replaying their position back their position to them, as accurately as possible, you will show that you empathize with their ‘pain’ or sense of threat, as well as their rational argument.

This will be way more effective than giving them a ‘yes, but’ response.

Start Here: Listening

However awkward someone is, you owe it to them at the start of any conflict to listen to their point of view, and to make sure that you have understood and can reflect your understanding back to them. By replaying their position to them, as accurately as possible, you will show that you empathize with their ‘pain’ or sense of threat, as well as their rational argument. This will be way more effective than giving them a ‘yes, but’ response.

Make Your Position Clear

You need to make your position clear and equally to clarify that your point of view also needs to be heard, and you will not be taken advantage of by unreasonable behavior or threats.

Always be polite and calm and thank the person for making their argument clear and for helping you to understand where they are coming from. Address any difficulties together, and try to avoid using ‘but’ in your response where possible.

Know Your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement

It is important to decide what the non-negotiable aspects of your own position are before trying to resolve any conflict of interests. This will not only help to ensure that you have been understood by the other person, but will help to make clear what your fall-back position is if you can’t get an agreement – or your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement).

For instance, in a project situation, you may be to defer to a more senior person who can re-scope the project, or in a more extreme case, to halt the project completely. Ultimately, what you need is an alternative solution to hand, even though there is a chance you may never use it.

What’s In It For Me?

We all make decisions based on what’s in our own best interest. As this is often the main motivator for our actions, ideally you should find out what the person’s WIIFM is (What’s In it For Me?).

If you take a look at the benefits there could be for them in a particular situation, there are bound to be some ‘wins’. Often by reviewing the scope of the situation together with a difficult stakeholder will give both parties the opportunity to maximize the benefits and minimize the perceived disadvantages for them.

Of course, a benefit for you could well be a disadvantage for them and vice-versa, but through the open discussion, hopefully a fair resolution for everyone can be found.

Making The Ask

Engagement, however, is not foolproof. In a conflict situation, it takes courage to make the ultimate request, the ‘ask’ of the other party.

This probably comes easier to sales people, who call this ‘closing’ the deal. But non-sales people can make the ask of another party in a way that acknowledges that taking on board the ‘ask’ would be costly in some way to them, thereby implying it would be courageous of them to agree.

Sometimes this simple request can seem very positive to a person.

Reflect Back The Consequences

Nor is engagement always a smooth ride. Sometimes, you may have to spell out the potential outcome of someone’s action, or inaction. You might have to make it clear what will happen if they decide not to work on a particular initiative or project, or what will happen if their drag their heels on making a decision.

Explain the increased costs, the reduced benefits or other consequences of their action.

If someone doesn’t fully appreciate the possibly, maybe unintended, outcome of their stance, this approach can be particularly revealing and powerful.

Or you might have to go a step further by making it crystal clear what the impact their decision will have on other people they are accountable to and how their decision will be viewed by their colleagues.

You should be careful when asserting such potential consequences, and exercise sensitivity, but it can be interesting how often this approach can result in someone reassessing their position.

There is, unfortunately, no fail-safe strategy when dealing with difficult stakeholders. Whatever approach you opt for, you are always going to be taking a risk.

But if you have a strategy in place in the beginning, if you are faced with a confrontation, at least you will be in a stronger position by having planned in advance what you want to happen, how you want it to happen and when.

Hopefully you won’t have to face too many awkward situations, but when you do, you can learn from each encounter, become more skilled and more likely to achieve a successful outcome.

About the author: Patrick Mayfield is the founding director and a non-executive director of pearcemayfield. He published a book in September 2013, Practical People Engagement – Leading Change through the Power of Relationships, which provides a rich reference of practices and techniques on how to influence and lead people to new solutions. The book follows on from research conducted with colleagues at his own company into how high performing managers not only thought differently but actually behaved differently.

One of the striking differences was the amount of time they spent in purposeful conversations with key people in and around their projects and programs. This time spent investing in relationships was somehow connected to the results they got.

Strategies for dealing with difficult people

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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