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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Jan 2018

Being powerful around difficult people

It’s certainly unscientific and probably unprofessional of me to use the term ‘difficult people’ in this journal entry. It’s a generalisation that can be really unhelpful. However, I’m doing so because it’s a term that gets used in organisations all the time. It’s a term that most of us recognise and it’s a topic that many of us struggle with.

Here are some of the things I hear:

I think I’m pretty reasonable and can get on with most people but this person is just ‘difficult’!
Why does this ‘difficult’ person seem to take up so much of my energy, my time and my thoughts?
Why does this ‘difficult’ person end up with the world revolving around them?

In my own life experience I have come across many types of ‘difficult person’ and through my clients I have met hundreds by proxy. Here are 20 questions which have proved useful in coaching conversations with clients who are struggling with a ‘difficult’ person.

  1. What is the power dynamic here – i.e. who has power over whom?
  2. Are you the only one who finds this person difficult?
  3. What specifically do you find difficult?
  4. What emotions does this person bring up in you?
  5. What thoughts, assumptions or judgements does this person bring up in you?
  6. What would you like to say to this person that you would not dare to say to their face?
  7. In what way is this difficult person different to you?
  8. In what way is this difficult person the same as you?
  9. What is the difficult person’s motivation or goal?
  10. If the difficulty were not about the person but about the family, team or system of which they are a part, does this change how you see it?
  11. If the difficulty were not about the other person but about you and your relationship with them, does this change how you see it?
  12. Do you really need to deal with this person or can you avoid or go around?
  13. Do you genuinely want or need to change your relationship with this person or can it go on the way it is?
  14. In what way does it serve you to call this person ‘difficult’ or to sustain this unsatisfactory status quo?
  15. What have you tried already and what has been the result?
  16. What else might you try that isn’t in your usual toolkit?
  17. Could this ‘difficult person’ be under intense pressure, in crisis or ill?
  18. Is this person just ‘difficult’ or are they immoral or criminal?
  19. What is at risk for you or others?
  20. How might you keep yourself and/or others safe?

I hope that answering these questions might help you to think about your situation from some different angles.

If I were to grossly generalise I would categorise ‘difficult person’ problems in four ways.

1 Growth Opportunities

This difficult person requires some capability in you that is under-developed. Perhaps she challenges you to listen when listening is not your forte. Perhaps he challenges you to be bold when being bold doesn’t come easily to you. Perhaps this person embodies something that you don’t yet own in yourself, for example your own power or your own vulnerability. Perhaps you are projecting onto this person something that doesn’t belong to them. Perhaps they are playing a role in a team or a family that needs to be played but is not recognised as sufficiently important. This person is someone who demands more range and agility from you than you have yet explored in your self. If you have the energy for it and want to retain your relationship with this person then working on your reactions and responses to this type of difficult personal can be a hugely rewarding and developmental experience.

2 Poor Fit

In an organisational setting many leaders take too long to deal with someone who is a ‘poor fit’. Of course, the term ‘poor fit’ has some red flags attached to it and is certainly not to be used as an excuse for constructive dismissal or shoddy management practice. But if you are in a line management position with your ‘difficult person’ and they are causing problems for your customers, other employees and the performance of the organisation due to a poor fit of skills, attitudes, values or behaviours then deal with it legally, professionally, fairly and with support from your HR business partner.  If you are not in a position of line-management power then you can only influence those who are by airing your concerns and giving data that may inform management decisions.

3 Cries for Help

Sometimes what we see as difficult behaviour is really a cry for help. Asking yourself if this difficult person is under pressure, in crisis or ill can sometimes completely change the way you see them and their impact on you.  Think about the difficult behaviour as ‘the best this person can do under tough circumstances’ and, if you have a duty of care to this person, then being curious about what is going on for them and looking for ways that you can help is the right thing to do.

4 Risk Management Challenges

With someone who really is bad news for you and/or others, sometimes you simply must lay down your boundaries. Perhaps this person has a personality disorder or addiction that creates chaos around them. Perhaps this person is emotionally, physically or sexually abusive. Trying to change yourself or the other person is unlikely to be a good plan. Your main priority should be self-protection. This can include saying no to this person, being clear about rules and consequences, logging your concern about this person with an authority, always being chaperoned when you are with this person, keeping a record of your dealings with this person, seeking professional advice or even starting criminal proceedings.

Of course, all four categories may be a development opportunity for you. Some are more harrowing than others, but each requires us to look to ourselves for resources that we might not know we have. Whichever category your difficult person case falls into (and please get in touch if you have other categories to add) getting support is essential. Don’t be alone with your difficult person problem. Talk to someone you trust.

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