To Manage Difficult People, First Learn to Manage Yourself

August 27 , 2021 •  6 minute read by Saeed

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Viktor E. Frank

If you Google ‘How to Manage Difficult People’ you’ll get about 2 billion results!

By contrast, if you Google ‘How to Manage Yourself’, you’ll get just over 1 million results.

As a coach I help people with both sides of this coin regularly and I can tell you that the return on investment is much greater when you focus on yourself.

Your success in work and life depends upon how you manage yourself and your emotions, your inner resources, your impulses and your abilities. In short, your success depends upon your self-mastery. Moreover, self-regulation or self-management is the second of the three key areas of personal skills that make up emotional intelligence.

Why focus on yourself?

That’s simple. Learning techniques and gaining tools to de-escalate a difficult situation is valuable. Customer service reps and other front line workers are often taught verbal de-escalation and how to defuse difficult situations in which a patient, family member, or even another employee is angry and out of control. This has value.

However, it also has limitations. Namely, one response does not fit all. Although these techniques have been proven effective in de-escalating some tough situations, every person is unique and may respond differently. Every event has multiple variables that even the most skilled negotiator may not be able to control.

Self-control, on the other hand, is entirely up to you. Self-control is NOT masking or hiding your emotions but recognizing and expressing them appropriately. This is about taking responsibility for your own actions, and ensuring that what you do matches with your personal values.

1.      Pause and get curious

The first and most important component in any process that includes the self; i.e., self-control, self-regulation, self-management or self-discipline is self-awareness. As your first act, get curious about yourself. I find that, if I take a deep breath and ask a question of myself, it gives me enough space to make a choice about how I want to respond—rather than reacting with a knee-jerk response. It allows me to get curious about my initial reactions, feel into my emotions, and make better decisions. How does my current mood influence how I am feeling about the other person? What values are being stepped on? What traits in others bother me? Why?

2.      Consider the story you are telling yourself 

In the absence of information, we fill in the blanks with details of our own. Do you remember the last time you were proven wrong about something you absolutely believed was true? Perhaps you are feeling rejected after you haven’t received a response to your email; you believe it is because you are not that important. Before you make these attributions, ask yourself: what other explanations might be possible? In the example of the email, what else could be going on with them that would stop them from reaching out to you? Could they be busy or sick? Are they a well-intentioned person who often forgets to follow through on commitments? 

3.      Look for positive intentions

Human beings naturally attribute more weight to negative emotions than positive ones. This is known as negativity bias. As a result, your knee-jerk reaction may be to assume negative intent. Positive intent is simply about giving people the benefit of the doubt. It means choosing to assume that your colleague’s behavior (and impact) is not the same as their intent and that they are working to the best of their ability with the resources and information they have. At its core, positive intent is believing that we’re all doing the best we can. Practicing positive intent is as much a muscle memory habit as it is a mindset. It means assuming that the person actually means well, rather than rushing to judgment. To assume positive intent is not always the easiest change one can make, but by doing so, you create the conditions for a win-win resolution.

4.      Be congruent

In the most simple terms, being congruent means being honest with yourself so that your nonverbal communication is in alignment with your verbal communication. It is when the inside and outside are one. Too often, people’s mouth will say one thing but their body language will convey a different message. Someone who lives with congruency understands what it is they stand for and acts in direct accordance with that understanding. They are able to convey clearly, honestly, and assertively what they think, why they think it and what they want as a result. The difficulty is we often don’t know our true beliefs and values. We often don’t know what we want. And we often fear rejection if we speak our true mind. It is important to recognize however, that feelings of inherent trust come from someone who is congruent. Congruency is the cornerstone of authenticity.  

5.      Speak from the heart

When you speak from the heart, the conversation becomes less about expressing frustration and more about staying engaged and genuinely connected to the other person. It becomes less about re-acting and more about inter-acting. When you speak from the heart, you place your difficult conversation with a difficult person in a different context. Unless you do this, it’s unlikely that someone who is in conflict with you is going to want to stay engaged. People, in general, are egocentric. They want to know that you get where they are coming from, that you get their perspective. You don’t have to agree necessarily but you do have to understand. Speaking from the heart means being emotionally attuned to yourself and the other. It means being open even if what the other has to say is hard to hear.

A Final Word…

All this is simple enough in theory but in practice it can be a bear. And that’s why you have to practice. Practice is the pre-requisite to mastery. The practice is made all the more difficult because this level of self-awareness alongside taking a clear stand on issues and experiences you are passionate about, and being in congruence, being honest with yourself and speaking from the heart all require a level of vulnerability.  They require courage. Indeed, vulnerability itself is an act of courage because when you allow yourself to be vulnerable; you merge with your authentic self. We tend to avoid vulnerability because it’s uncomfortable and because it triggers fear and self-doubt. But vulnerability does not signify weakness. It signifies strength. Indeed, to live a remarkable life, you must take consistent action in spite of your fears and doubts. That’s the very definition of courage. Your choices define who you are. Your ability to manage yourself, will define your choices.

Good luck.

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©2021 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC

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