Working with Difficult People: Part 1

3 Feb

It’s a well-known fact: Life is a struggle. According to Buddhists, this is the only thing we can be sure of.

And like it or not, most of the struggles we face, provided our basic needs for food and shelter are being met, come as a direct result of our own actions, interaction with other human beings or a combination of the two.

Work is a place of productive conflict, where we toil in the field, whether we’re actual farmers or pod-dwellers. Anyone expecting to avoid conflict at work should just go back to bed, because a workplace without conflict is bereft of new ideas and forward motion. It’s as simple as that. But there are ways to get through the conflict and produce great deliverables in the end, while preserving everyone’s integrity in the process. Not everyone cares to live by this approach, much to our dismay. These are the curmudgeons, the “difficult people” whom we will no doubt encounter in our professional careers. We will work beside, and God help us, for them. We will have them working for us. They are out there…lurking. Making our lives more challenging. And helping us to learn more about what’s difficult in ourselves.

I’ve been asked by the Columbus Young Professionals to give a talk on dealing with difficult people in March. To help get me in the right frame of mind to share some (hopefully helpful) insights, I am going to blog on a few possible topics.

Today’s focus: Friday Afternoon Surprise


The Surprise is not to be confused with any variation of “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is a situation created either by someone else in your workplace (but never you) OR by a client. Your goal is to promote a peaceful and collaborative workspace, free of conflict and strife. But others are bent against your lofty aims. We’ve all felt the Friday Afternoon Surprise. It’s that brick-dropping, pit-of-the-stomach gut wrench that is caused by either difficult people, difficult situations or both.

Warning signs are as follows:

  • Any e-mail with the subject, “Heads Up!” High priority e-mails are also suspect.
  • Any phone call made after 5:30 pm on a Friday.

Nine times out of ten, it’s a tempest in a teapot. Someone’s stirring up trouble, and they suck you into it. Or someone gets anxious about a situation that’s no big deal. No matter the cause, the end result is one or more of these frustrating circumstances:

  • Hand-wringing and nonsensical phone conversations and e-mail messages (which are bound to contradict one another) well into Friday night’s happy hour or family movie night.
  • Extra work beyond what you’d already planned for the weekend. You’ve dared to stake out a quiet Saturday morning to write that proposal that requires intense concentration, but the Friday Afternoon Surprise will have none of it. You will spend all day Saturday and Sunday mopping up that Surprise. Alas, the proposal will have to wait until next weekend.
  • Your entire weekend becomes an extended prelude to Monday morning.

How to evade the dread Surprise?

  1. Make a habit of taking off time on Friday afternoons. Working on-site with a client or from home are both viable options, because the Surprise’s heat-seeking missile capabilities prey on those who are physically present in the office on Friday after lunch. Being virtually present gives you cover.
  2. If you don’t have the luxury of #1–and let’s face it, few do–there are evasive maneuvers to avoid the Surprise. By employing judo techniques, you can step aside and let the Surprise follow its natural momentum, past you and into someone else. Overlook that e-mail message. Pretend like you never received that desperate voice mail message. But there are karmic consequences to be paid for these maneuvers, and you must be prepared to accept them when they come back to you.
  3. Set limits. While there are legitimate surprises that happen on Friday afternoons, most crises do not require an overhaul of your entire weekend. Seek help from your colleagues—don’t feel like you have to deal with the Surprise by yourself. You may also successfully talk the Messenger of the Surprise off the ledge. If you can put the Surprise into perspective for them, it may take on less importance in the scheme of things. By not avoiding the conversation and instead talking through a difficult situation with a clear head while laying all the facts on the table, you could do the Messenger a favor and help them think differently.

The Friday Afternoon Surprise is a good example of a difficult situation turning good people into difficult people. Then again, there are people who do seek out crisis and try to spread the crisis around, just to bring attention to themselves or prove a point. My husband, who works in mental health, calls these folks “histrionic.” It’s important to identify this type of behavior and nip it in the bud. Clarify what you can and cannot solve, and get on with your weekend.

Dedicated to Diamond.


Next topic in this series: That Guy Who Will Never Like You, No Matter How Wonderful You Are

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4 Responses to “Working with Difficult People: Part 1”

  1. PM Hut February 4, 2009 at 6:20 am #

    #2 is not as bad as it seems, it is done by a lot of people all the time. It’s always good to respond to emails at the end of the day (10 minutes before packing); the person receiving the email wants to leave too (especially if it’s a Friday), so s/he won’t respond.

    #1 and #3 are luxuries that few possess.

  2. Diamond Emory February 4, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    #3 is the definite correct thing to do in this situation. This option is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Not only does it keep the lines of communication open with the client, but it helps you maintain the your priorities and establishes “healthy boundaries” for the client. As you stated in your blog, we’ve all gotten that email or phone call where something has been blown totally out of proportion. If you instantaneously jump at every little thing the client throws your way, without taking a deep breath and looking at the situation objectively, you throw those “healthy boundaries” out the window. Option 3 is the best option to keep a healthy client relationship while saving face. When possible, take the luxury of #1 and make it a habit. Excellent thoughts. Love the song, “Aaaaaaafter noon delight!”

  3. Caroline February 7, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    How much do you love the “heads up” emails that strike fear in your heart but then turn out to be completely benign? I believe I sent you one of those last week…..

    🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Animal People « To Know Better - September 28, 2010

    […] with difficult people. There was the troll. The change agent. The vampire. The neglectful boss. The Friday Afternoon Surprise. I’ve worked with all of these people and have seen them at their best and worst. At their […]

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