How to Deal with Difficult People

In Essays, Self Improvement, Stoicism

This essay is a condensed version of my thoughts and reflections while working over a two month period and dealing with many people everyday in the summer of 2013.

I had been working as the centre manager of an international english summer school for Italian teenagers. I had worked in similar summer schools for the past five years so I knew the job quite well but it was the first time that I was fully in charge.

The responsibilities were quite great: the safety and welfare of almost 350 students and an overall staff of just under 70 people, 25 of whom were under my responsibility.

I tried to do my best but I quickly learnt that you can’t please everyone, all the time.

I arrived in London with one objective: To develop my patience as much as possible and to that extent I had been studying a few stoic texts in the preceding months. I must say that this helped a lot but I still have a long way to go.

Anyway, these are my observations, or “rules”, from my two months of work. If anything, this is just a record for myself to know how to do a better job in the future.

Unfortunately I can’t say that I followed each and every one of these observations to the letter the whole time, but I gave it my best shot.

1. Give People the Benefit of the Doubt.

Without getting bogged down into deep philosophical discussions, which is not a bad thing per se, I think that it’s very difficult to know one’s own true self. We have different versions of ourself that we present to the world in different situations and with different people.

One could say that perhaps there is no “true self” and that we all have multiple personalities that merge together in different quantities at different times. People often talk about the “self” being the core of an onion and we have different layers that we show different people.

Personally I think that those layers are who we are and our inner core “self” is at worse an illusion, and at best in a state of constant flux.

If we believe the above to be even partly true, then it logically follows that if we can’t know ourselves then we can’t really know other people.

That’s why I often try and give people the benefit of the doubt. You never know what that person is going through in their personal life.

I had a few personal issues this summer while working, mostly related to the breaking up of a long term relationship and while I tried to stay professional at all times it’s very difficult.

Also, everyone views life through a different prism. A prism that is made up of their past experiences and their current beliefs.

When you can, try and view the situation through what you imagine may be their perspective, you may just realise that often people aren’t so bad after all.

Conversely, do not expect people to give YOU the benefit of the doubt. It’s great if they do, but don’t expect it. When people ask you how you are, all they really want to hear is “Fine, thanks”.

Nobody really cares if your girlfriend has left you, if you are having family problems or if your finances are in tatters.

They expect you to act professionally.

So when you snap at someone because you’ve lost your patience, that person will probably not give you the benefit of the doubt, they will just think you are an idiot.

2. Telling People They are Wrong Just Doesn’t Work.

If you have to take away only one thing from this article, take this:

Nobody likes to be told that they are wrong or that they have done wrong.

Their opinions are generally sacrosanct.

Only the wisest people that you will meet in life know that they don’t know much, everyone else thinks that they are right.

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.”

~ Socrates

Often the best course is not to try and fight against this type of misconception. I found that instead of telling the person that they are wrong it’s better to start a discussion about alternative ideas instead of just destroying their beliefs. However, this doesn’t mean that you should let people walk all over you.

Dale Carnegie put it very well when he said:

If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive

To continue the analogy: If you do kick over the beehive, expect to get stung!

When you tell someone that they are wrong and that their ideas are useless it doesn’t lead to anything positive. It just gives the other person a good reason for disliking you.

Criticism is futile:

  • It arouses resentment
  • It puts the person who you are criticising on the defensive
  • It hurts their pride
  • People (and animals!) learn better when rewarded for good behaviour than punished for bad behaviour. (See rule number 5)
  • Makes them feel less important (See rule number 10)
  • Criticism will not alter the past. What’s done is done. Use your energy to look for ways to solve the problem, not to hunt for someone to hang.

If you work with someone who is in need of a complete attitude change, it’s often easier, more profitable and less dangerous to work on your own attitude than try and change theirs.

“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbour’s roof when your own doorstep is unclean”

~ Confucius

3. Get Your Hands Dirty

This is something I learnt about being a manager: you need to “muck in” as much as possible. I was guilty of not doing this as much as I could have.

There are several reasons why one should sometimes do work that’s not technically in one’s job description.

  • It allows you to understand other people’s jobs far better. This is really important when you are the boss and you need to look after your staff. Second hand reports don’t even come close compared with actually being there and trying it for yourself.
  • It’s a sly way to check on people, without just sitting there with a notepad or laptop and making people feel uncomfortable.
  • It makes you more human! Suddenly, even if for a moment in time, you become like everyone else. This helps people see the human side of you vs the boss side.
  • People genuinely appreciate help!
  • It makes it much easier to ask other people for help later on. I know, this is slightly Machiavellian.
  • Who knows, you might have some fun!

4. Set Realistic Expectations.

“Nothing out to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body wear and fragile”

~ Seneca

When people are aware that things can, and at some stage will, go wrong they are likely to react far better to that emergency.

Pessimism can be an advantage

If you welcome someone to your team and tell them how it will all be smooth and easy and everyone will be happy and you will create a great team from day one you are simply lying to them.

And guess what?

When something does go wrong, guess who they will blame?! That’s right, you.

Setting realistic expectations is not only the right thing to do, it’s your duty.

Reward Hard Work.

As we saw earlier, people (i.e. your staff) learn better (read: work better) when rewarded for good behaviour versus when they are punished for bad behaviour.

If we accept this as a fact, then clearly there is one thing to do:

Work hard & play hard(er).

Saving money on parties, drinks and entertainment is not the way to go. It’s false economy and sends a clear signal:

YOU [or your company] don’t think your staff are important. Skip forward to rule number 10 to see why that’s not a good thing.

You can actually save money and have a happier, more effective workforce by making sure they feel rewarded for their hard work. It’s fairly straight forward, they do a get job, they get rewarded, which means they want to keep doing a good job. Some would argue that getting paid is the reward but unfortunately that’s not how it works.

Hard week for everyone? Buy a round, or three, of drinks on Friday and reap the rewards.

It doesn’t have to be big things either. The occasional gourmet coffee or box of pastries for the office.

What matters is that the thought was there. It shows that you went out of your way to think about them.

People appreciate that.

Let’s turn this on it’s head and see what happens.

Let’s say that you do the very opposite and just punish people for their bad work.

What do you think will happen?

That’s right, people will build up resentment towards you and they will do as little as possible when you are not looking. After all, nobody can be everywhere at all times, so it pays of to make your staff want to do a good job.

One last thing: often the simplest and most effective reward is just genuine appreciation. Go up to them and thank them and tell them that they’ve done a great job, you might just be surprised at how many smiles you see during your day.

Stuck for ideas? Here are 101 ways to reward employees

6. There are Always Difficult People.

This is a bit like turning rule 4 around for oneself.

I had experienced working with some very difficult people in the last five years and so I was quite prepared to have one or two tough nuts to crack this summer.

The trick is to stop thinking of them as a pain-in-the-ass and actually thank them for being difficult because it gives you an opportunity to practice patience, self-control and to put Rule Number 1 into place.

By the way: don’t actually thank them (!), just do it in your head.

Again, if you expect everyone you meet in life to be logical, reasonable and pleasant then you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment. You will meat lots of people in life who, for some reason, make your life more difficult.

Accept this fact and move on with your life instead of worrying about how you can change the way they are.

It’s very easy for me to sit here and tell you to tolerate people but in “real life” sometimes it can get too much. Don’t worry, nobody said that you need to get it right the first time.

Even if you can tolerate them slightly more for an hour, that’s a step forward in the right direction.

Before you know it you will be as calm as a Hindu cow. I’m not quite there myself, but I believe that I’m on the right path.

7. Remember that it all Doesn’t Really Matter in the Long Term. Keep a Healthy Perspective.

In the really long term, everything you see and everyone you know (and don’t know!) will all be gone. Stardust, so to speak.

It’s often work contemplating this in one’s downtime as it allows you to keep a healthy perspective in the events that unfold in your life.

Think of all the billions of humans that have been and gone. Think of all their great struggles. Wars, crusades, disease, famines, love stories, tragedies. It all seems quite irrelevant in this very moment. Yes, many of these people have certainly left their mark on the world but in this exact moment, none of that really matters.

Next time you have an argument with someone, just give up and admit you are wrong, even if deep down you know you are right [Keep in mind Rule number 2].

Will it even matter in 5 years time? In a month’s time? Next week? Tomorrow? You see where I’m going with this.

Forgive and forget, life’s too short. Of course it’s easy to forget all this in the heat of the moment.

PS: If you can do this you will slowly build a reputation as someone who doesn’t keep grudges and people will respect that.

8. Personal relationships are More Important than What You Do. (or How you say things is more important than what you say).

“Man is by nature a social animal.”

~ Aristotle.

I think Aristotle was spot on. Man is a social animal. We thrive in a community. If you look at almost all of humankind’s achievements, you will find that they have been done in a community.

Rarely has one man or woman done everything by themselves.

This summer I made a priority to have great personal relationships with my clients and I can tell you that it pays off handsomely.

Firstly, you actually make new friends and learn about their lifestyle and ideas. That’s never a bad thing.

Secondly, if they like you as a person, they are far more likely to forgive the occasional human error. Nobody is perfect but if they can see that you are really making an effort and then something still happens to go wrong. Oh well, c’est la vie!

Finally, it’s far more likely that they will become long term customers! If people like you, they will like doing business with you. Simple as that.

9. In vino Veritas.

In Vino Veritas is a Latin phrase that translates:

“In wine (there is the) truth.”

There was one department in the school that I assumed was going fine because I hadn’t received any complaints from the clients and the head of that department told me all was good.

One night I happened to find myself sharing some wine with the staff from that department but not the head of the department.

Needless to say, after several empty bottles the staff started talking about what they didn’t enjoy about the work and the problems within the department.

I suddenly realised that I had made a mistake: I had not been paying anywhere near enough attention and there were a few issues that needed to be dealt with.

Sometimes people will open up more in a relaxed social setting instead of doing the typical corporate “appraisal” rubbish where you invite a staff member to your office and ask about their relative strengths and weaknesses and how they are getting on.

It also involves less paperwork!

10. Make other people feel important

What do human beings really want?

How do you make someone do what you want?

Those are a couple of tough questions! Let’s tackle them one at a time.

So what do human beings really want?

Sex? Money? Art? More of everything? I’m not 100% sure what the priority is for everyone, and I know that different people have different priorities in different stages of their lives.

I do know one thing that everybody wants and craves. Something that is almost as important as the air we breathe and the food we eat:

The feeling of being important.

Think about it. If you are told by everyone you meet that you are worthless and unimportant and that nobody cares, you might as well end it there and then. Nobody would spill any tears.

People go to great lengths to find this feeling of importance:

  • They polish their talents and become great artists.
  • They join criminal gangs.
  • They get good jobs
  • They accumulate a lot of wealth
  • Sometimes they go mad!

All of this is to achieve one thing: that feeling of being worth something. Having that feeling of importance is great, so why would we want to deny it to anyone?

How do we go about giving someone that feeling of being important?

It’s actually quite simple, treat them as if they are:

  • Remember their name. It’s the most important word to them
  • You need to give them responsibility slightly above their role. After all, if they are important they can surely be trusted? People will appreciate you giving them your trust and will try extra hard not to do anything to break it. This helps you make them do something you want them to do, and the amazing thing is: They will actually want to do it!
  • Appreciate them!

And we also managed to answer question number two:

If you want to make someone do something, make them want to do it!

If you Can’t Hack it any Longer…

Sometimes there is just no way of dealing with people. If it’s really bad, and it’s effecting your job, and you can’t see any other way out: quit.

But remember, do it in style.

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