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If you Google “difficult people,” you get 3,060,000 hits; “difficult people at work,”188,000 and “working with difficult people,” 302,000 hits. Hmmm

There’s no question that in most every organization (including home and playground), we come face to face with folks who test our limits, who push our buttons, who frustrate, upset, antagonize and otherwise annoy us to where we just want to scream. We often refer to such folks as “difficult,” or irritating or rude – folks whom we just cannot work with or be with.

From my perspective, however, the question is not so much what makes them “difficult,” but what we tell ourselves about them that makes them difficult, that is, what is it in us that supports or triggers our reactivity. What are the stories and characterizations we tell ourselves about these others that bring us to label them as “difficult (e.g., S/he is so (fill in the blank with your negative judgment, criticism, or descriptor)” that categorizes them as difficult?”

When we inquire within, i.e., when we ask ourselves, “What is really, really, really ‘true’ about this person’s being difficult?”, experience suggests that it’s not so much that another’s behavior is all that egregious, outlandish, off the charts or aberrant. More often, it’s the story we tell ourselves about that person we take as real, a story we assume is true.

So, when we feel the urge to label another as “difficult,” a first step is to check out the reality of the story, my story, my “facts.” How so?

Here are three self-reflective questions to ask:

1. What is that person doing, or how are they being, that is problematical for me, that leads me to label them as “difficult?”

In other words, ask yourself “What are the observable and measurable behaviors that point to their being “difficult?”  Often, when we’re caught up in reactivity, or feeling flooded by our emotions, we lose sight of the observable facts and simply respond with a knee-jerk judgment along the lines of: “Well, it’s nothing specific. I can’t point to any one thing exactly, s/he’s just being an “a–hole.” Because we feel so attached to our story, we often fail to grasp the details that indicate the person is, in fact, difficult. So, ask yourself, “If someone gave me the same feedback (judgment) I am directing to that other person, would I know exactly how to do, or be, differently? If not, you’re telling yourself a story and you’ll need to be clear on the facts.

2. Do you allow your story to cloud your view of that person?

When we create stories, we create a set of lenses or filters though we choose to view (judge?) that person. Or, another analogy – if I choose to believe another is lazy, then I turn the “radio dial” in my head to the station that features only “laziness” tunes and, as such, I’m always on the lookout for, listening for, ways that person is behaving that I can characterize as lazy, in order to prove the truth of my story.

If I choose to believe my boss is friendlier with a colleague and is ignoring, or rejecting, me and my work, then I turn my internal radio dial to pick up “rejection” tunes and look for, and listen for, incidents which support me to say, “See, there she goes again; she likes that other person and is not concerned with me or my work.”

The point is, we consciously or unconsciously create distortions that support us to prove “I am right,” that “my story” is true. We look to internalize/save lots of evidence to prove our story. We don’t stand back and ask ourselves, “Is this the whole story?” “Is my story, really, really the truth?” “Is there any chance I’m distorting things just a bit?” In fact, “Is this person, perhaps, not the ‘worst person’ in the world I make him or her out to be?” “Could I be mistaken?”

3. Do you behave a certain way toward that person based on your story?

The bottom line is that our stories influence our behavior (at work, at home, at play in just about all of our relationships). Our stories (and their attendant beliefs, thoughts, assumptions, preconceptions, misperceptions, etc.) trigger our emotions and feelings and it is our emotions and feelings that drive our behavior (often unconsciously) towards the other.

So, its important to take steps to become “conscious” of our stories. Two questions can help in this inquiry: “How am I behaving toward another based on my story?” And, “Am I building a case against another, or attempting to solidify a case against another, based on my story?”

A next step is to become curious as to whether, in fact, I am perpetuating another’s behavior as a result of my story. Am I contributing to that other persons being “difficult” through my story and reactivity?

Yes, there are “difficult” people in the world. The question is whether some of these folks are really “difficult” in and of themselves or whether I am a major contributing factor to their being ‘”difficult” through my story, and, more sincerely, honestly, and self-responsibly, how do I know the difference.

Finally, I invite you to reflect on the following thoughts that might inform your inquiry into “difficult” people and your stories about them:

Everyone is in “chapter three” of their life and often we base our criticisms and judgments of another on the assumption we know what went on in “chapter one” and “chapter two.” Truth is, we don’t know. This approach can often support us to be less judgmental and give the other the benefit of the doubt and, thus, be more open, accepting, understanding and compassionate in the way we relate to others when we, initially, want to judge them as “difficult.”

No one (read: no one) ever gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be a jerk today.” Maybe pause, take a few deep breaths, feel into your arising reactivity (mental, emotional, physiological) and ask yourself why this well-meaning, decent person would choose to behave in a “difficult” manner. Be curious. Breathe again. And see if you still feel as reactive. If you do, be curious as to why. What does being reactive get you?

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • How do you generally react at work (at home and at play) when you come across a “difficult” person?
  • Do you ever give a “difficult” person the benefit of the doubt? If not, why not?
  • Do you ever make judgments about folks assuming you know all about them (chapters one and two) and what makes them “tick”?
  • Have you ever been the “difficult” person? How so? If so, how does acknowledging this make you feel?
  • Have you ever asked colleagues, bosses, friends, spouse/partner or child(ren) if you’re a difficult person? If not, would you? If not, why not?
  • Have you even been judged harshly or unfairly? How did you feel?
  • Have you ever been told you were quick to judge?
  • Do you ever make up stories about people? How do your stories support you or make you feel?
  • Do you ever feel compassionate towards “difficult” people? Do you ever defend “difficult” people?
  • Do you ever justify your own “difficult” behavior while admonishing others for behaving in the same “difficult” way? What’s the difference?
  • When the choice is between seeing another as a human being or a villain (“difficult”), which do you normally choose? Why?
  • What one or two baby steps might you take this week and next to discern the facts about someone you might have labeled as “difficult” to see if your “story” is really, really, the “truth?”
  • How did you parents or primary caregivers view “difficult” people when you were growing up?

(c) 2018, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com

You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.

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