RESOURCES / ARTICLES AND CASE STUDIES
Dealing With Difficult People
It seems like no matter what area of life we are in there are always some people who are difficult to get on with. They are either exceptionally prickly, or don't seem to care less, couldn't be bothered, or are remarkably self-centred and inconsiderate. We wonder: "What's with these people?" "What planet are they living on?", "Do they go out of their way to be especially unpleasant and uncooperative?", "How can someone be so insensitive?” “What needs to happen for them to get the message?” “What's wrong with them?" They have the potential to take up an enormous amount of our time and energy and we can find ourselves continually in conversations with others about their shortcomings. In doing so we use a lot of the planet's oxygen and it doesn't change a thing!
Life is not happy for us when we are in the company of people we consider as difficult. We find ourselves out of options, resigned that things will not improve, and experiencing continual frustration, which is not good for our own wellbeing. So what can be done? We want to suggest an approach that focuses not on the person we experience as being difficult, but on our self, specifically on how we are observing. This is based on the following premise: We do not know how things are, we only know how we observe them.
Each of us has our own perspective on the situations in our life, and that's all we have - our perspective. Our perspective is our interpretations. We react, respond and operate from our perspective, but we are very rarely aware of the perspective we have of someone and how that drives our behaviour. One of the most powerful forms of learning we can engage in is to take a look at:
By being willing to inspect our perspective we are then in a position to address the following question: "What is it that makes someone difficult for us?" But let's take a look first at what our perspective is made up of. Essentially it consists of assumptions, which is how we think things are, how they should be, and how they could be. The basis of these assumptions is the standards we live by and how we expect others to be consistent with these. Our standards and assumptions are the basis of our opinions, and we knit our opinions very coherently into a story. But we rarely, if ever, observe this fundamental process of how our perspective is formed, and if we were to slightly adjust some of our assumptions, we would have a different perspective and different ways of behaving.
What makes someone difficult for us is that they don't live up to our standards and expectations, and we are not able to influence them to do so. That pushes our buttons, because our standards define our dignity and integrity and where and how we make a stand in life. And when our standards are "violated" we have an emotional response, which can become long-term and entrenched as a mood that we live from all the time in our dealings with difficult people. Moods colour how we see life, and we can find ourselves in negative moods, which are powerful enough to trap us into always having the same perspective. Our moods live in our body, so we also have a physical reaction, reflected in our breathing, muscle tension and posture.
The traditional way of looking at why someone is difficult is to point the finger at them, and speak of the unacceptable characteristics of their behaviour. By being willing to take a look at our own perspective we can take another approach, one that begins with pointing the finger at our self and acknowledging how we are observing things. It is critical to continually remind ourselves that what we observe is an interpretation, and while we may think we have the "right" interpretation, ours is but one of thousands! We see and hear people do things, but our standards and assumptions have us form an interpretation. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of regarding our interpretations as "fact". Part of the reason we are deluded into this line of thinking is because others can have similar interpretations. But this only means we have consensus, which can blind us to developing innovative ways of dealing with tricky issues.
What can be done, how can we be influential in improving things, even with seemingly the most intractable and "recalcitrant" of people? There are a number of things we want to suggest about observing our observing.
One closing point. It is easy to underestimate the complexity of the dynamics of human interaction. We are not machines, but biological entities, sometimes highly unpredictable and, above all else each of us is a mystery, both to ourselves and others. Good luck!
© Newfield Institute
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