Dealing With Difficult People? Don't Give In To "Fight or Flight"

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it irritates the pig.

I’m sure you’ve read somewhere or other some variation of today’s “slogan.” Well, it’s true. If you’re stuck with pigs, don’t waste your time on strategies that don’t work.

Last week I talked about difficult, dysfunctional team members. I outlined the attitudes you need to adopt when working with those types of people. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to approve of their behavior. But you do have to work together. That’s what being a team is all about.

If at all possible, TURN THE DYSFUNCTIONAL MEMBERS INTO FRIENDS. If you approach them as enemies, they’ll fight you. And if you try to defeat them, they’ll put their defenses up. They dig in their heels and resist. The more you push them to change, the more strongly they cling to their negative behavior.

When you’re warm and friendly however, the dysfunctional team members lower their guard. They put up less resistance. And they tend to go along with you. Abraham Lincoln used this approach. One time a woman asked him why he continued to speak kindly about his enemies. Why didn’t he try to destroy them instead? Lincoln responded, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Doug Polson, one of my former students, and at one time one of the top carpet salesmen in southern California, uses the same approach. He literally loves to work with the difficult, irate, complaining customers all the other salespeople avoid. Doug says he loves “to take the fire out” of those customers. In fact, he is so good at turning difficult people into friends that he’s often invited to the customer’s house for dinner after the conflict is resolved.

Polson says there are four things that will help you turn a difficult person around. First, “REMEMBER you are a human being worthy of respect.”

When someone swears at you or gets extremely hostile, you may or may not be the cause of her anger. The other person may be upset with your product, your company, your service, or even her husband, her kids, or her toothache. Whatever the cause, Polson says you have to remember that you may simply be the target of her anger, not the cause of it. And whatever the cause of the anger, the other person never has the right to be rude or disrespectful. Doug empowers himself with that thought.

Second, REFUSE to take it personally. You may be a team member who truly believes in the team concept and your team in particular. You might be the target of someone’s anger who doesn’t buy into the team concept. He may think you’re a “goody-goody” trying to “get in good with management.” Chances are his anger is not directed at you–but what you believe in. Don’t get hooked. Refuse to take it personally.

Third, Polson says, “RESIST categories.” Don’t let the difficult person put you in a negative stereotypical category. An angry person might say something like, “You salespeople… insurance agents… managers… lawyers… ‘team players’ are all alike. You all…” You can’t let those comments go unchallenged.

The more an angry person puts you in a category, the less he sees you as a special, unique human being. And the less he sees you as a human being worthy of respect, the easier it is for him to keep on acting like an enemy. So when an upset person tells Polson, “You’re all alike,” Polson responds warmly but self-assuredly, “No, I’m the only one of my kind. I’m the only one of me you’ve ever met.” The upset person soon learns that Polson can’t be bullied around.

Fourth, RETURN the respect you wish to have. Like anyone else, the difficult person wants to be treated as unique and special. So do what you can to make him feel that way. Let him know he’s a priority.

As a salesman, Polson says, “When you take your eyes off the person and put them on the books, you’re in trouble.” In other words, if the customer feels disrespected or discounted, if the customer thinks you’re more concerned about your profit than his welfare, you’re in trouble. The difficult person will become more difficult.

The same goes for your fellow team member. He wants to be more than a role on the team or a job function at the company. He wants to be treated with the same respect you would give a friend.

REFRAIN from arguing. One of my professional speaker friends, Michael Podolinsky, talks about this. He’s also an expert in karate. He told me his karate instructor insisted that he “Never, ever, argue with an idiot.” In other words, if the other person is out of control, be careful. Even if you have flawless logic, and even though you may be very effective in communication, the idiot will still argue with you. You can never win an argument with an idiot, so refrain from arguing.

Besides that, arguing makes you look bad. As one of my workshop participants in Malaysia said, “If you argue with an idiot, someone watching from the outside may not know which is which.”

Michael shared an example of not arguing with an idiot. It just so happened that Michael parked his car and boat where another person thought he shouldn’t. The other person, a six foot, 250 pound man slammed on the brakes of his truck, threw open his truck door, and ran to Michael, swearing all the way. The people at the beach were watching. The people at the restaurant stopped eating. And the workers at the marina stopped working. Everyone was watching. And everyone was waiting for a fight to break out.

Michael stepped away from his car, with his hands raised and palms forward–a subtle gesture that communicated openness and “Whoa, let’s slow down.” It was also a good karate protective stance. Michael immediately apologized. He said he was wrong; he was sorry, and asked the man to forgive him. The man would hear none of it and said, “I think it’s about time that somebody teaches you a lesson.”

The man wouldn’t accept the apology, and he wasn’t responding to Michael’s efforts to smooth over the situation. So Michael stopped arguing with the idiot. Arguing would have thrown fuel on the fire, and the two of them would have ended up in a fist fight. And showing fear wouldn’t have worked either. If Michael had shown fear, it might have given the bully the confidence he needed to punch out Michael.

Michael just stood there, perfectly still, perfectly silent, hands raised, palms out, looking the man squarely in the eye. His silence was deafening. With fists raised, the man paused, looked at everyone staring at him, swore at Michael, and said, “You’re not worth it.” With that, he returned to his truck and drove off!

If Michael had done anything else, if Michael had tried to argue with the man, he would have gotten into a fight. He would have been forced to use karate force on the man. Sure Michael might have won, but what would that have accomplished? The idiot might have become an even angrier enemy.

The same is true in your team. Refrain from arguing with a difficult team member. That never turns him into a friend or a friendly team member. It’s a battle you can’t win. And as Chinese General Sun Tzu said, “Never enter a battle you cannot win.”

One other thing, ENGAGE the difficult dysfunctional person in conversation. This is especially true when there’s tension in the air, and you’re not exactly sure what is causing the problem.

Start with an opening statement of observation. Try comments such as, “I’m wondering if something is bothering you,” or “Things don’t seem to be going very smoothly.”

Then wait for a response. You’re trying to engage the other person in conversation. The difficult person will usually say something.

If he doesn’t respond, offer your best guess as to what caused the problem. Your guess might sound something like, “I’m wondering if you felt slighted when no one commented on your suggestion at the staff meeting.” or, “I’d guess it started when the Operations Department didn’t consult you.”

Once again, wait for a response. The difficult team member will usually confirm or deny your guess. He may say, “No, it wasn’t so much the lack of feedback as…” or “Yes, I got ticked off when…”

With the conversation under way, listen. Don’t try to talk the other person out of her feelings. That will only make her more defensive.

In other words, permit time to vent. A part of being a team member is spending time and energy absorbing other people’s complaints. This isn’t fun, but if a team is to function smoothly, the team members must get the negative feelings out of their system. And sometimes you can drain off the backbiting, criticizing, and fuming just by listening.

After listening to the difficult team member, state your previous intentions. Clarify what you were trying to communicate. Remove any misunderstandings that the difficult person may have. Say something like, “I was trying to show… but I may not have done a good job of…” Then state your present intentions such as, “I’m trying to remove the hard feelings between us… I want us to be fully open with each other.”

Take these steps, and you’ll be more effective at handling the dysfunctional behavior of others.

Action:  When you encounter a difficult team member, it’s natural to have the fight or flight response. Neither one works. Try the steps I outlined for how you ENGAGE the difficult person in communication.