Dancing With Wolves

How to Deal Superbly and Creatively With Difficult People

Your success, fulfillment, health, and outlook for your professional future (and personal life) may very well depend on your abilities to deal with people who I term “very difficult.”

Difficult people are in every healthcare workplace and can rapidly erode team morale, patient care, and the ability to roll with the punches on any given day. When I ran New England for Stress Management and spoke to health care professionals throughout the country, I noted that difficult people can make you emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Difficult people usually are GOOD at what they do because they have been doing it for a long time and you are just in their path on any particular day! They are just “wound” that way. You don’t change difficult people, you manage them, work around them and understand it is part of your job/career to run into them. They come in many shapes and forms, can be of any age, any level of experience, and may have motives beyond what the average person can comprehend.

So, let’s give a few pointers on how to stay “healthy” as you deal with them:

  1. Buy a box of “QTIPS” and keep it at your desk, in your car or just with you. Look at them often to remind you that QTIP stands for “Quit Taking It Personally.” This strategy preserves your perspective that you are not going to allow one person to ruin or sabotage your day and when you have that perspective, you communicate with less anger, retaliation and sarcasm. Difficult people can promote sarcasm and the only one that eventually gets hurt is you! Your worked hard to develop your communication skills -don’t “give them away”. Preserve for lack of a better word your “sanity.” If you overreact to a difficult person, there will be physiological changes sooner or later, including tight muscles, high blood pressure, headaches and more. You will arrive at home very irritated and that is not fun for you or the people who you live with and hopefully love. YOU will be the one who will need to lie down because you were the willing target to their antics and behaviors. Seems like a general strategy, but sometimes a general strategy or reminder is very powerful.
  2. Develop a Comic Vision. You outlook on life and with difficult people needs to have some humor installed regularly. You need levity when the difficult people to keep them from grinding you down like a tree stump. Suggestion; if you see the difficult person approaching or in your field of vision start to utilize your comic skills by singing (to yourself) the theme of Jaws-you know the song! This will offset any tendency you have to REACT, rather than respond. A real pro knows that leadership is a great skill regardless of job title-so be a leader so that you in turn can lead others. Remember, you don’t have an infinite amount of mental energy, and you need it for your patients/clients. They deserve to have you mentally fortified and not overly agitated. Difficult people can greatly affect your focus so it’s ok to have your sense of humor extended-in other words, if you don’t see their car in the parking lot it is ok to feel like it’s Christmas. But remember, they will eventually be there so enjoy the temporary reprieve-you deserve it.
  3. Buy a GUMBY- you remember the cartoon character, and keep it with you. Gumby is perhaps the most adaptable ‘person’ I know and he is always smiling even if you think that indicates he is medicated (lol). He is a great reminder that you need to adjust to people all the time and enjoy each day you are above ground! I have done many presentations on this subject and actually encourage conference sponsors to hand out Gumby in all sizes. I even have a few POKEYS – his legendary friend.
  4. Be gracious with people, but ruthless with time because your time is a precious commodity. If a difficult person says “can I speak with you for two minutes” and you know the one everlasting truth is that it is NEVER two minutes, give the time away only if you can stick limit the interaction. Use a timer if you need to! Too much EXPOSURE to a difficult person will be non-productive and many will not honor your time. You need to be in charge and set time limits or say (and the more you practice this line, the better) “perhaps when I have more time, we should talk. I want to listen to your thoughts without feeling rushed.” The truth is, that many difficult people are very good at extending the time that they take to speak and many are poor listeners, so GO EASY, and set boundaries in a professional and kind manner. They will get used to the idea that you are not a doormat and that your time is important. If you want to be the consummate pro, follow this up with a concise email that says “look forward to speaking with you” and know that what happens, and is psychologically funny- is that the person will likely not even want to follow up with you. (I don’t know why this happens, but I have observed the phenomenon often!)
  5. Be aware of TRIGGERS. Certain people tend to irritate you by the specific way they talk and the words they use. Be aware of what rubs you the wrong way and try to “water down” the effect of their words. Many difficult people are passive-aggressive, so sometimes their syrup sweet words can be just as irritating as any other approach. I have actually compiled pages of descriptions of difficult people and placed them in clinical categories. You can access them by contacting me, and I will gladly send you the list.
  6. Just Visualize! You are familiar with the difficult person and what the interaction will look like so you can program your response with visualization. (I prepare CDs to practice these skills and also incorporate deep breathing techniques) and it works. Seeing it before it happens allows you to “control” your response, allowing you to effectively deal with the myriad of other tasks involved in your job as a healthcare professional.
  7. Have gratitude and appreciation for life’s “small things’. It gives you a leg up on being a powerful and evolved person and directly helps balance your interactions with life’s challenges and difficult people. When I need a shot of gratitude, I still read the great book ‘”Tuesdays With Morrie.” I also like the book “What You Think of Me Is None Of My Business.”
  8. Know your Mood Elevator! When you deal with a difficult person make sure you are in the mindset to talk calmly, accurately and with respect (regardless of their sharp instincts to try and get you “off balance”). The mood elevator goes to the tenth floor so to speak-and it is you feeling your best (9 or 10). If you are feeling anything below a 5, wait to communicate either in writing (email) or directly in person. Also remember, that words are like toothpaste, once you squeeze them out you can’t get out them back! So, your mood will determine what words leave your mouth. Sometimes when our mood is subpar, YOU become the difficult person who is unable to monitor your words.
  9. Remember this analogy when working with difficult people: In sailing, there is a “rule” that sometimes you have to be the more “maneuverable” craft to avoid a collision. It’s the same with human relations. Don’t let your ego get in the way of achieving your goal with the difficult person. Be a great navigator of your mind. Many times, your goal is to COPE with a difficult person, not necessarily win at all costs. Being able to COPE should not be undersold as a strategy.
  10. Do you have an example of working with a challenging or difficult person? We’d love to hear your stories.

    I will see you soon with another informative, inspiring article with a dose of well-honed levity/humor. Life is precious and you hold the key to fulfillment and happiness. I’m in your corner.