The Challenge of Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Conversations

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Often when working with groups or coaching individuals on how to engage people in constructive conversations around difficult issues, I’ll have someone say “Why do I have to be the one to do all the work? They’re the ones with the problem.”

They then go on to explain how the other person is the one who A) behaved badly; B) isn’t doing their job; C) acted inappropriately.

They bristle at the suggestion that THEY do the work to “get their head and heart right” before the conversation, as I recommend. I’ve found over the years, from both personal and professional experience, that the time spent getting into a more productive emotional state and a wiser, more thoughtful mental state before the conversation is time well spent.

Difficult conversations

Doing so dramatically improves our ability to engage the other person in a productive conversation, despite the difficult subject matter. Even though they believe doing the work will make a difference, some balk at the idea.

Why should I be the one to do all this work to make the conversation work. Why don’t they? It’s their fault” they say.

Have you ever felt that way?

I know I have.

Taking the lead

When I get that objection, I sometimes jokingly say that the other person isn’t in the seminar, so I can’t help them, but because the person objecting is, that’s who we will work with.

On a more serious note, though, I answer that understandable lament by drawing on the wisdom of my colleague and mentor Bonnie Vestal, MD, who is a medical counselor from Boise, Idaho.

In conversations we’ve had over the years around challenging conversations she’s guided me and others through, she will often share her philosophy around what it means to be a leader in relationships and in difficult conversations:

It’s up to the person who is most mature, most evolved, to take the lead in these difficult conversations. It’s up to you to model the kind of behavior and way of showing up that fosters productive conversations. By doing so, not only are you far more likely to call forth the other person’s Best Self, you are also role modeling for them a better way of dealing with conflict. Once they experience a more respectful, compassionate way of dealing with conflict — and how they were affected by that very different approach — they are more likely to interact with others in such a way.”

Therefore, if YOU are more mature — or evolved, if you will — and have greater interpersonal skills, why wouldn’t you take the lead? You are more capable of facilitating a productive conversation.

The hard work before the discussion

I’ve found over the years that when I do the hard work prior to a difficult conversation to get into a state where I’m truly willing to hear the other person’s point of view rather than make them wrong or chastise them, miracles do happen.

People who I honestly didn’t think were capable of a reasonable, mature conversation rose to the occasion. When I’ve let go of my desire to show them just how wrong or bad they were to have said what they said or do what they did, amazing things have happened.

When I shift from feeling afraid of the potential conflict to accepting the role of leader, role model, and facilitator, I let go of my desire to “win” or get back at them. When I’m able to do that, my focus shifts to asking what actions on my part will most likely foster a productive conversation. It shifts from my personal agenda to asking, “What actions on my part are for the greater good?”

Now as I use the words “leader, role model, and facilitator” I don’t mean seeing ourselves in a superior, one-up position, as if we are somehow better than they. I mean thinking this in a humble “Hey, no worries … I got this …” nod to the situation, acknowledging that you are willing to step up and be a leader in a situation where the other person is unable and/or unwilling to do so.

Bringing out the best self in others

Another truism that Dr. Bonnie Vestal operates on that has proved really helpful to me is, “Don’t frighten people, because when people act frightening, it’s because they are frightened.”

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Neuroscience research on how stress affects the human brain — a phenomenon labeled Downshifting by Dr. Leslie Hart — reveals the neuropsychology behind this truth.

When people feel threatened, their reptilian brain gets triggered. This very primitive region of the brain is responsible for activating survival programs, such as “the best defense is a good offense,” “kill or be killed,” “if you’re helpless, you will soon be dead,” and “if you’re attacked, attack back.”

Thus, if we want to bring out the other’s best self, their higher self, we need to come to the conversation in a non-threatening emotional and mental state. This can take a lot of work if we’re really upset and have convinced ourselves how bad and wrong the other person is.

“Not frightening people” — which in many ways means “not frightening their reptilian brain” — also means doing the work to choose words and use a voice tone that communicates, “I’m safe to talk to. You can be safe having this conversation.”

To verify this point, think of times you became defensive or combative in response to how someone brought up an issue with you. Most likely, you felt attacked. “Attacked” can me unfairly criticized, it can mean feeling pinned against the wall verbally, it can mean feeling shamed. Whatever they did that triggered you to feel threatened, the result was that it brought out far less than your best self.

It doesn’t work all the time

As I often note wryly in my workshops “Oh, by the way — you can’t win ‘em all. You can do your very best to be your best self, you can use the perfect tone of voice and perfect set of words to bring up a difficult issue … and it still can go down in flames.” I’ve certainly had my share of those situations.

I’ve also had my share of conversations where I wasn’t able to stay in my higher self. As a work in progress, I still get my buttons pushed by meanness and rudeness, despite my best attempts at remaining in a Zen-like state.

But I keep working at it. So if you do your best to be your best self and your buttons get pushed, and you drop down to their level of maturity or evolution, just chalk it up as a learning experience, and as an indication that you are human.

Bringing out your best self

While giving this topic justice would take several hours, here are a few questions you can ask yourself prior to dealing with someone you find difficult or having a difficult conversation:

  1. How would someone you respect for their wisdom, courage, emotional intelligence, and compassion deal with this?”
  2. What response (or action) on my part is for the greater good?
  3. Would the way I am thinking of bringing up this issue make the other person feel safe or threatened?”
  4. The way I’m thinking of dealing with this, would I be proud if some person you have huge respect for were there watching me?
  5. Who might I talk through my perspective and the approach I’m considering, so I can get a third-party perspective?”

This I can promise

If you do the work to bring the best you into conversations, and by doing so, bring out the best self in others, you will not only experience a whole lot less stress in relationships, you will get far better results from others, and, perhaps most importantly, you will truly make a positive difference wherever you go.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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