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How To Deal With Difficult People

There are some weeks that I seem to be a magnet for angry, hurting, frustrated people. While filling in for the 1RTU chaplain I also did some presentations on communication, workplace relations and ethics, but somehow putting those concepts into practice with difficult people never gets any easier. Been there? While pondering this gulf between theory and practice I had to admit that maybe it would be easier if I had a quick checklist. So, the next time an angry, hurt, frustrated person walks into your office (or home) work through this list:

  1. Be Open! Don’t make a hasty judgement and reject them on the basis of how you feel. Choose NOT to get defensive, and be open to the fact that they may have good reason for reacting the way they are. They may have come to you because they trust you, so don’t blow it by acting busy.
  2. Listen actively! Let them vent their feelings, encourage them to keep talking by asking open ended questions. Resist the urge to interrupt and give easy quick fix solutions before they are really finished describing their problem. Give them your undivided attention, look at their body language as well as what they are saying or not saying.
  3. Check for accuracy! Give them some feedback as to what you have heard. This will require a calm confident assessment of what the issue is and how they feel about it. Seek to get any others facts or documentation that may have led up to this problem.
  4. Express empathy! Telling them they are stupid for feeling the way they do will not help. Seek to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes, and validate their feelings. You may never have been in their situation, but to recognise and verbalise their depth of feeling gives you the opportunity to begin helping.
  5. Determine direction! Find out what they think would be an ideal solution. This may be totally unrealistic, but it is the obvious place to start. They may see this as the only option, but your role is to help them find a range of possible solutions to be assessed. At this point you may also need to get other specialist input as to how some of these options will affect other parts of the organisation. Make a decision!
  6. Develop action plan! Clearly describe what you are going to do and what you expect them to do to put this plan into practice. Don’t be afraid to document this process as this may save a lot of heartache in the future for all concerned.
  7. Do it! No matter how good the plan may be if it is not implemented nothing changes! Follow through and make sure that you express your thanks to the person for raising it and helping to resolve it. This may also give you an opportunity to make sure that they have done what they agreed to do.

Finally, remember that sometimes the actual cause of their anger and frustration may be systemic, and patting yourself on the back for how well you handled the individual may not address the real issue. Step 8 therefore will require you to assess and address the wider context of the complaint.

Chaplain Ian S Whitley

2 comments to How To Deal With Difficult People

  • Thank you for these great and helpful tips as this can be helpful with my children.

    I do find myself sometimes hearing them though not listening to them and what they are truly trying to communicate to me. Slowing down and breathing I find helps me too. “Being open” to what they have to tell me I find is when we have the best chats too. They truly are special little beings and I will be instilling your tips with them more actively.

    Thank you.

  • Ian

    Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes even within our own homes, and sometimes it’s me! Communication is the key and we need to be continually working at improving, and always looking for new ideas. Thanks for your support and encouragement.

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