How to Cope with Troublesome People

Dealing with difficult people should not be a skill that only some possess. There are difficult people in almost any project or office, and your inability to work with them could hold back the entire team. Taking the time to learn exactly why someone is difficult could be the solution.

I recently read yet another post about dealing with difficult people. These articles are often based on the premise that something is wrong with these people and your challenge is not to change anything you’re doing, but to find ways to tolerate their undesirable behavior.

When people act in a contrary manner—whether by being confrontational, making unreasonable demands or anything else—it’s certainly possible they’re being deliberately obstreperous. But it’s also possible that their attitudes and actions are as well-founded as your own when considered from their perspective.

To avoid automatically judging such people, a useful exercise is to contemplate what might account for their behavior. In the process, you might come to see them in a different light, and as a result, become open to other ways of working with them.

To give it a try, select a customer whose behavior you find troublesome. Brainstorm with team members and generate a list of factors that could account for such behavior. Be as wide-ranging as possible. Then select one or two factors you’ve come up with, and discuss how you might work differently with the customer based on these factors.

Let Me Count the Ways
I’ve given several groups experience with this exercise by presenting a profile of Mr. Tough Guy, a customer many found to be aggressive, distrustful, demanding, and stubborn.

When I asked them to brainstorm about what might account for his behavior, here are some of the possibilities they came up with:

    • He fears a lack of control over his work and so is overbearing.
    • He is passionate about his work and unintentionally comes on too strong.
    • He uses a belligerent style to mask his insecurities.
    • He’s a sweet, lovable guy who doesn’t realize how he comes across.
    • He’s upward bound, and sees this behavior as the means to his end.
    • He’s modeling the behavior of his superior, Mr. High-Level-Tough-Guy.
    • He believes that if you don’t use a beat-‘em-up style, people won’t listen.
    • It’s his way of dealing with pressures at home.
    • Contending with his teen-agers has affected his behavior at work.

Of course, you’ll probably never know what accounts for a particular person’s behavior. Still, acknowledging the possibilities can lead you to explore alternative ways to work with that person that just might ease the relationship.

Relationship Reversal
That was the experience in one group I worked with: The group speculated that one possible factor causing a pushy, know-it-all customer to act that way was a need to have her views acknowledged. They decided that thereafter, when she vented about how things should be done, they’d listen carefully, acknowledge her views, ask questions and empathize. Granted, doing this was a risk; her behavior might actually have worsened. But that’s not what happened.

It took a while, but gradually, her pushiness diminished, and then vanished; moreover, she became attentive to their pressures and empathized with their challenges.

The almost unimaginable result: A strong positive relationship developed. Where once they were adversaries, now they’d become allies.

Try it with those you find challenging to work with. Don’t be surprised if your relationship becomes one characterized by mutual respect and collaboration.

User Comments

1 comment
Robert Merrill's picture

Thanks, Naomi. We techies can be too quick to Flip The Bozo (or A**hole) Bit, and this list opens our eyes to other possibilities.

But sometimes we do run up against genuine unreasonableness. For that, I recommend Alan Godwin's How to Solve Your People Problems. Start with dialogue. If you encounter reasonableness, stay in dialogue. If you encounter drama, switch to boundaries.

I just blogged, Your People Problems and How To Solve Them, for those wanting more information and resources.

Thanks again. Software, especially done Agile, is a people-intensive business.

October 3, 2013 - 11:26am

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.