Thursday, September 29, 2011

How To Deal With Difficult People Without Getting Upset

This is a CD by Rachel Green, an award-winning communication specialist and emotional intelligence coach.  With a title like that, it's no wonder it grabbed my attention at the local library earlier this year.

I met Rachel in 2007 when she came to Curtin to help the library staff revamp our lesson plans and sharpen our teaching skills.  If you ever want to be torn down in a nice way and then built up again, Rachel is the woman to do it.  She is an incredibly dynamic presenter, humorous, frank and very warm and genuine.

How To Deal With Difficult People Without Getting Upset was recorded at a seminar Rachel did with a group of school administration staff.  It is incredibly helpful for those (like me) who are the first port of call for customers and clients and deal with difficult people outside your workplace on a regular basis.  Even if you don't work in customer service, it is very helpful stuff as many of us are prone to taking others' aggressive behaviour personally.

My question before listening to this CD was how are you NOT meant to take someone abusing you personally?  How are you not meant to take snide put-downs personally?  Even if you know that person is in a bad mood about something else, it is hard not to come away from conflict situations feeling like crap.

Here are some of the things I learnt from that CD:

Some remarks may have been intended to be personal, but we have a choice how we take them.  If someone says something like, "The trouble with you is you're too sensitive," we often react by being the very thing they accused us of.  Instead of letting that person push your buttons, you could respond by saying something like, "Yes, I am sensitive, and that's what makes me good at my job."

Here are some other examples of not taking things personally:

"What are you, some kind of career woman?"

"Yes and loving it."
"Thanks for the recognition."
"Yes, your job is next."

"I have to tiptoe carefully around you."

"Thanks, I feel so safe when you're around."
"Thank you for noticing and caring."

"Well, you're only the admin officer."

"Yes, I'm the one who makes things run smoothly."
"I run the school.  Don't tell the principal, he thinks he does."
"Thank you for noticing."
"Yes, but I'm all you've got for the moment."
"No, I'm the boss."
"Yes, and I can help you."
"Yes, and I pay your salary."
"I'm glad I was available otherwise you'd be talking to the desk."

These responses were brainstormed by the attendees at the session.  The trick is to respond in a polite and friendly manner - not by trading insult for insult.  Some of the responses are sarcastic, but they can be communicated with a warm tone.

Rachel explores the reasons why we get hurt by some of these statements.  It has to do with our personal history, lack of confidence, stress, feeling inadequate, misunderstanding or guilt.  Often someone will make a statement and we take it a certain way because of a similar incident in the past.  We often automatically believe other people's negative opinions of us.  We forget the 99 positive comments and hang onto the one negative one (definitely an issue for me).  We need to respond to what's happening right now, not to what happened in our history, and ask ourselves why we are reacting this way.

One thing she did touch on a fair bit was the communication issue between men and women using a scenario where a woman buys a new dress and asks her partner what he thinks of it.  He responds with, "It's ok."  So many women would have been hurt by that statement because they want their partner to tell them they look amazing.  It's ok tends to be interpreted by many women as not good enough.  Instead of responding negatively and causing an argument, these were other possible responses that were provided by the participants:

"I'm glad you didn't think I went overboard.  I thought $850 was more than enough for a one-off event."
"I thought you'd like it.  Thank you."
"I love it and I think the colour really suits me."
"Good because it cost you a lot of money."

Apparently when a man says, "It's ok," he means it as a compliment.  And if you think you look gorgeous anyway, why do you need anyone else to tell you?  Sometimes what sound like put-downs to women, are actually meant as compliments between men (is that true blokes?).  Women may need to clarify if it was meant as a put-down or a compliment as apparently some men like to insult women when they really like and respect them.  If someone calls you 'bossy', ask, "Bossy? In what way?" (in a warm and friendly, not an accusing tone).  For some people, 'stubborn' is a compliment because it means they're determined and successful.  To others, it means bossy, selfish and arrogant.  If it really is an insult, respond calmly with something like, "I hadn't realised that.  Thanks for pointing it out."   Thanking an angry person often diffuses their anger.  If it doesn't work, clearly state your boundaries such as, "I'm not able to listen to you when you use language like that."

We need to watch for 'emotional hooks' where we can allow ourselves to be hurt.  Don't depend on another person's reaction for your sense of worth.  Do your best to help a customer within the organisation's policy, but don't judge your own success on someone else's happiness.  There is a difference between listening to valid feedback and relying on others' approval.

If someone makes a nasty remark, slow down your reaction to give yourself thinking time to formulate a nice response.  Ask them, "Could you please repeat that for me?"  Most people will not repeat what they have just said.  Delay your reaction by having a fill-in or set statement to say i.e. "That's an interesting comment," (which generally means that it's not), or, "That's certainly one opinion."  Here are some other possible responses:

"I'm sorry you're not happy.  Is there anything more I can do to help?"
"I'm sure your opinion is important to you."
"I'm a little hard of hearing.  Could you please say that again."
"May God bless you."

Tell yourself, "This is going to wash over me like water off a duck's back."

Charm the aggressive person's socks off and don't give them the privilege of getting to you.

What I really liked about this CD is that it doesn't deny that some comments ARE meant to be hurtful...but not all are.  Too many people will tell you that you're imagining it.  That's not always the case.  People ARE mean.

It also differentiates between feelings and reactions.  We cannot always stop feeling angry or hurt, but we can take a moment to choose how we respond.  As a Christian, I want to respond in a godly way and not fight fire with fire (even though it is oh so tempting and I have done it plenty of times in the past).  Do not sin in your anger.

There is so much more that this CD covered which I haven't mentioned, but do listen to it if you're someone (like me) who struggles in this area.  And if you ever get a chance to go to one of Rachel's seminars, do it :)
Image is from


Iris Flavia said...

I´ve read books on this subject, too. Sadly when the situation is there I am too overwhelmed to react in that manner. Can you? If so... did you train to do it?
Luckily I´m very seldom in a situation like this and if so, mostly it is via E-Mail.

Sarah said...

Sadly when the situation is there I am too overwhelmed to react in that manner.

Me too, Iris, but I think Rachel's advice to take some time to respond is good. You don't have to respond straight away. Sometimes, depending on the situation, silence may be the best response. I didn't do any training, I still find it hard to deal with.