most of us can be perceived as being a “difficult person” in a given setting.
It is the emotions of frustration, anger or confusion that lie at the heart of difficult behaviour, rather than the character of the persons themselves.
A leading contemporary psychologist, Jeffrey Kottler, has famously stated: “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”
If you have personally experienced the challenge of dealing with what is commonly called “difficult people” either at work or in social settings, you might be inclined think that this is an oversimplification. A vital truth, however, that Kottler points out here, is that every relationship – always, and without exception – has two parties.
Another important point of Kettler’s comment is the fact that, in reality, most of us can in fact be perceived as being a “difficult person” in a given setting, since this is how we often come across to many people whenever we are upset. It is, after all, emotions of frustration, anger, confusion or helplessness that lie at the heart of difficult behaviour, rather than the character of the persons themselves.
We therefore need to avoid quick judgment (e.g. “he or she is a difficult person”) since our assumptions may hide helpful information. There may be something else going on. Sometimes they are people who are being scapegoated for some reason. Sometimes they are raising important issues that the organization needs to hear but chooses not to.
Stress, for example, can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus — an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress can cause irreversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small “arms” that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. This can have a lasting impact on human behaviour.
In other words, when we speak of “a high-conflict personality”, this is in reality a description of a pattern of repeated behaviour in situations of either conflict or stress. One of the central causes of difficult behaviour is a person’s perception that they are not being heard, and labelling someone a “difficult person” can therefore be doubly counterproductive in that it makes it easy for colleagues to continue to dismiss what they are trying to communicate, even if they could have something valuable to contribute.
When dealing with difficult behaviour, it is therefore important to remember that you are not having difficulty dealing with their shortcomings as human beings per se, but rather with unhealthy behavioural patterns. In fact, many people are themselves the primary victims of their own negative behaviour. Labelling them, even in their absence, won’t do anyone any favours. It is much better to focus on the manifestation of difficult behaviour in a particular setting such as the office, and deal with it accordingly. Most importantly, this means managing not the “difficult person”, but managing a difficult relationship.
When you focus on the relationship, this opens up the possibility of connecting with the person with empathy and responding to hostility in a friendly yet firm manner. Additionally, avoiding harsh statements or judgments is central to building any kind of relationship threatened by difficult behaviour. Active listening is crucial in this regard. Avoid starting with judgment, as this may just end up feeding that person’s need for attention rather than helping to shift behaviours.
In other words, when handling difficult behaviour, our focus need not be on changing the person, but responding constructively to destructive behavioural patterns, and managing the relationship by focusing on developing constructive responses to and interaction with that difficult behaviour. The ability to manage your own emotions in a relationship and treating others with empathy is absolutely key to helping both parties grow in the relationship and also to handle and perhaps even help the relationship overcome the negative consequences of difficult behaviour.
Paul Russell is co-founder of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national training company with offices in London, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise exclusively in the luxury industry and deliver training in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across the globe.
Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles within luxury hospitality. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.