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Dealing With Difficult People

You can't get rid of them, so you'd better learn to get along with them

3 min read

The mere mention of ”difficult people” brings knowing looks to our faces. These people won’t go away, so you need to deal with them effectively before they cause any real damage. Easier said than done!

First, learn to recognize difficult people. Some key characteristics: they’re never satisfied, they don’t communicate easily with others, they can be argumentative and unreasonable, and they often use their power to obstruct.

You can’t change them, but you can change the way you deal with them.

Back when I worked at an airport, I needed approval from Fred—who was always hard to pin down—on a pricing strategy. He wouldn’t get back to me, so Idrafted a memo to force him to decide and placed it on his chair before he arrived at work. When I phoned him for his reaction and he said he hadn’t received the memo, I asked him to get up off his chair—look at what you’re sitting on! A potentially irritating situation turned into laughter. The lesson here is be overly nice and cooperative with difficult people. Let them bother others, not you.

I once got a call from an airport manager asking me how I’d gotten a fellow named Cliff, famous for avoiding new tasks, to volunteer for one. Cliff represented his unit on a task force I led. He said that a certain off-airport baggage check-in procedure ”couldn’t be done,” so I told him that an airline was actually doing it and suggested that he might call the airline to find out how. Cliff agreed to doit—and sure enough, he did. My answer to his manager’s question was to assume that even a difficult person is really trying to do the right thing. Appeal to the better angels of his nature.

Another difficult person was Dave, a business rep who oversaw my projects. When I first met him to discuss my responsibilities, he bluntly pushed back: ”What the heck do you know about business development?” (Dave actually used stronger language.) Ineeded to keep my eye on Dave, so I asked his secretary, whom I knew, to give me a heads up if Dave seemed mad at me.

Sometime later she called: ”Dave is on the warpath” about one of my phone-card vending machines, she said. I first called our phone-card contractor to see if he could meet at the airport that day; then I called Dave on the pretext of setting up a meeting. Sure enough, I got an earful about the locations of newly installed machines. Iasked him if it would be okay to visit him that day along with the contractor, who could fix the problem. We did, and Dave was very pleased. The solution here was to keep your eyes and ears open to head off situations with difficult people before they can develop into crises .

Often, a person you may not work well with gets along just fine with others. I had a strained relationship with one airport executive until I took a seminar that analyzed personality types according to a test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It helped me understand what motivates different people, including myself. The executive was a numbers-oriented person, and so I started giving him more facts and figures. Our relationship improved immediately. My manager glowed and said, ”That stuff really works!” If you understand yourself, it becomes easier to understand--and accommodate--others.

That brings us to our last tip: look in the mirror. In the middle of my career, my new manager told me she learned Ihad a bad reputation--people in other departments had said Iwas too hard on them. This wasnews to me. She counseled me to work more closely with each department. ”And Carl--be nice,” she said. I needed to remember the lesson of Pogo, the cartoon character who once observed, ”We have met the enemy, and heis us.” Don’t be a difficult person yourself.

About the Author

CARL SELINGER, an IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, shares some insights on navigating the workplace terrain in ”Dealing With Difficult People” [p. 24]. A private consultant with 40 years of experience in business, government, and academia, Selinger gives seminars to engineers on nontechnical skills. His 2004 book, Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School (Wileyâ''IEEE Press), has now been published in China.

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