A few weeks ago, I had a short, sharp argument with a colleague about a decision I had made. This wasn’t the first time we had quarreled, and I found the exchange upsetting. The main thoughts I had at the time and for days afterward were that this person was irremediably difficult and that I didn’t want to work together anymore.
This is not an unusual situation. I’ve had a lot of encounters, in both my professional and personal life, that I’ve found to be annoying, frustrating, or distressing, and that have caused me to stew for a long time on the transgressions of those “difficult people.” Many of us have such experiences.
What has surprised me about these interactions, however, is that they are so unlike those I deal with in my daily professional work. My colleagues and I help diverse teams of leaders work together on complex challenges such as climate, health, food, education, and security. Often these leaders don’t agree with, like, or trust one another, but they choose to collaborate with “difficult others” because they think it’s the best way to make progress on the issues they care about. And many of them succeed, through our structured, months-long processes, in surmounting their differences and working together. The collaborative methods my colleagues and I employ have produced many impactful partnerships: an employer representative and a union leader, a revolutionary and a police chief, a community worker and a company CEO, an investigative journalist and a government official. I have been inspired by the capacity of these leaders to work across their deep divisions.
How to Deal with “Difficult People”
For years I’ve thought, “How fortunate I am to have the opportunity to work with such exceptionally good people!” But then my longtime collaborator Betty Sue Flowers suggested an alternative way of understanding these experiences. “These are not extraordinarily good people,” she said. “They are ordinary people whom you are enabling to be good through the way you are working with them.” So perhaps there are no difficult people — only situations in which people seem to us to be difficult. Flipping my perspective in this way has helped me to draw lessons from my professional life that can help us all deal with the so-called difficult others we know.
Create low-stakes spaces. The diverse teams whose work I facilitate are able to begin collaborating because initially the processes my colleagues and I employ are structured in a way that keeps the risks low: They are only meeting, only listening, only talking, or only trying things out. In this way they have the opportunity to experiment with new connections, ideas, and actions, and to decide at each step whether it’s worthwhile and safe to go further.
We can all do this. We should plan out-of-the-ordinary, lower-stakes encounters with the people we struggle with. These activities should involve alternative objectives, settings, and participants, such as meals, walks, or meetings focused on generating new options rather than deciding among options. And we should include deliberate breaks for stepping back, which might help us see things in a new way. The key is to create contexts that enable us all to relax enough to escape from our habitual defensive interactions and to see what is going on around, among, and within us with greater understanding and possibility.
Look for patterns in your frustrations. One essential capacity I emphasize to the teams I work with is “suspending.” This means recognizing that we all tell stories about what is going on that are simply stories, not the truth, and that when we add “in my opinion” to our declarations, we signal that we are aware of this and are inviting alternative interpretations.
We may notice recurring patterns in the situations we find annoying, frustrating, or upsetting, and it might turn out that these triggers have more to do with us than they do with the other person.
When we say that another person is difficult, we are focusing on our take on what they are doing. However, if we can suspend our judgments, we may notice recurring patterns in the situations we find annoying, frustrating, or upsetting, and it might turn out that these triggers have more to do with us than they do with the other person. For example, I notice that when other people challenge my authority, I tend to tense up, and that this defensive contracting can turn potentially fluid and creative interactions into stuck and destructive ones.
What bothers us in the interactions we have with certain people is often a fear of losing something we are holding onto tightly: status, position, security, certainty, or control. If we can see this, we can understand how we are part of the problem and can therefore be part of the solution. We can choose whether to continue enacting these behaviors or try to enact new ones.
Practice letting go. The leaders I help don’t collaborate with everybody on everything: They, and all of us, have to make choices about whom to work with. Sometimes we decide we don’t want to deal with certain people: that until they change what they’re doing, we will maneuver against or around them. On the other hand, sometimes we decide that we can’t count on them to change, but understand that we need to work with them anyway. We might even recognize that there are things we’re doing that are getting in the way and that we want to do differently.
In the example I gave above, once I notice my pattern of tensing up when I feel my authority challenged, I have the option of changing it. When I feel myself contracting, I can try to relax — in that moment or after deliberately stepping away for a while — and let go of my stubborn attachment, in this case to being in charge.
None of this is easy, foolproof, or straightforward: I fail at this as often as I succeed. As Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” But the alternative — to conclude that others are simply hopelessly difficult — is usually too easy and leaves us stuck only with the unilateral options of forcing, adapting, or exiting. If we want to be able to collaborate with diverse others, then we have to be willing to change ourselves.