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Finding Beauty In The Beast
By Christine Corelli   Printer Friendly Version

Terri Lang looked over the construction expenditures for the Phoenix Towers project and noticed that the actuals far exceed the projected. Material costs seem to be in line, but labor is running too high. She remembered that the construction supervisor for the project is Dave Shepherd. Great, she groaned to herself, Dave certainly doesn't have a reputation for being a "people person." Nonetheless, Terri wanted to talk to him about the project overruns.

Later that day, Dave arrived at Terri's office. "Hi Dave. I need to talk to you about the Phoenix Towers project. You're running way over budget. It looks as if your people are working a little slower than they should be."

Dave bristles. "Are you saying my guys are lazy?"

"No, not at all. I'm saying that based on the amount of work hours put into the project so far, we should be further along than we are."

"The weather's been pretty bad this winter. Kinda bums every one out. I have a good crew and they are working the best they can, and I don't really appreciate your micromanaging me. You're not out there every day, so you don't know what it's like. Let me do my job and the job will get done."

Terri began to feel defensive. "The budget is my job and you need to make sure your crew is working as efficiently as possible. I'm the one that has to take the heat if we go over budget."

Dave gets up. "Listen, my guys are good workers. If you think you can do my job, then by all means, we'll see you at Phoenix Towers tomorrow." With that, Dave storms out of the room.

It takes all kinds of people to make up this diverse world in which we live. Some people are considerate, helpful, and do what they can to make the lives of the people around them easier. Others are "difficult people." It seems to be their special mission in life to make our lives difficult--sometimes downright miserable. As children, we were able to avoid bullies by walking a different way home from school or ducking behind a bush. But as adults, we can't always walk down a different corridor or duck behind a cubicle. We must learn to deal with difficult people because most of the time we don't have a choice. They can be our customers, our bosses, or our peers.

It's all about conflict. A person can be difficult for many reasons. He may be angry because his career is stagnating, his personal life is falling apart, or simply because he was cut off in traffic that morning. She may have grown up in an environment were she were never taught how to "work and play" with others. He may have learned that he was always able to get what he wanted by screaming and shouting. Whatever the reason may be, it's not your job to try to figure out the reasons why the person is difficult. Chances are, you'll never figure it out. You don't need to. Your concern isn't why the person behaves the way he does, but how can you deal with the behavior.

Rather than seeing a situation with a difficult person as a personality clash, it may be more helpful to view it as a conflict. In the Phoenix Towers example above, Terri knew that Dave had a less than pleasant personality. Instead of focusing on that, she should think about what Dave might want from the situation. Maybe he is under pressure from the vice president of operations to get the project done quickly. Maybe he doesn't have enough people on his crew. Maybe he's frustrated with the amount of paperwork he has to submit to Terri. Whatever his reason, it boils down to a conflict between what Terri is trying to accomplish and what Dave is trying to accomplish. To more effectively manage the conflict with a difficult person, you can follow a four-step conflict management process.

  1. Know your end result. If you keep in mind what it is you are seeking to get out of your interaction with a difficult person, then you will be less likely to get side-tracked by unrelated issues or allow yourself to get caught in a clash over personalities. Concerning Phoenix Towers, Terri needed to talk with Dave about the project overruns. But what did she want as an outcome? The goal wasn't just to talk about the cost overruns, but to get him to take some kind of action-to change his behavior. Terri wanted Dave to make sure his crew was working as efficiently as possible. Ultimately, her goal is to get the project completed on time and on budget. She can only accomplish the latter if Dave accomplishes the former.
  2. Determine conflicting purposes. In a conflict, you have your issues, but you need to remember that the other party has his own issues as well. More than likely, Dave isn't intentionally undermining Terri's desire to control the costs in the budget. That's in his best interest as well. But there may be other factors in conflict with that desire. His primary concern might be to do a quality job on the project. Also, perhaps he knows that his crew might not be as well trained, as he would like them to be. If Terri surfaces and addresses these concerns, then she has a starting point from which to talk with Dave.
  3. Monitor your own communication. When dealing with a difficult person, it's easy to become defensive or attack the other person as you try to determine his issues. Since you cannot control the communication of another, you must start with your own. First, you need to listen. Ask yourself, "What is this person really trying to tell me?" Dave mentioned that the weather was bad, but he also was concerned that Terri thinks his crew is lazy. Notice how he mentioned a few times that his crew was good. If Terri looked beyond the surface of the words, she may have discovered Dave's real issues. Also, Terri needed to avoid being critical herself. Once she became defensive and said, "The budget is my job and you need to make sure your crew is working as efficiently as possible," she lost whatever opportunity she may have had to get Dave to open up. The less judgmental you are and the more you listen to the other party, the greater the likelihood you will find the deeper issues of a difficult person. Later, we'll look at some techniques to help you avoid judgmental statements.
  4. Seek a "win-win" resolution. Now that you have surfaced the other person's agenda, you can find a "win-win" resolution that will meet your end-result and resolve the other's issues as well. If you cannot create a resolution that addresses the other person's concerns, then the difficult person will never buy into a solution where he sees no benefit for him. Let's say Terri found out that Dave felt his crew needed better training. Obviously, removing people from the project to train them would not fulfill your objective of bringing in the project on time and on budget. Perhaps, though, you could arrange to have one or two senior people from another project assist Dave's crew for a few weeks while a few of his people receive the needed training. Now, both parties have a "win."

Get comfortable on a verbal cushion. We can't always avoid difficult people, and most of the time we can't change them. What we can do is learn how to cope with them by communicating in a confident, competent and non-combative way. Whether it's a subordinate who's perpetually tardy, a peer who is jealous of your accomplishments, or an irate customer who calls to complain and demands to speak to the owner of the company, we must be able to respond to them in an effective manner. When someone challenges a statement you make and becomes defensive, you need to diffuse the situation. We can do that by memorizing what are called "verbal cushions." Verbal cushions are designed to focus on the issues of the other person in a non-threatening manner. They communicate a sense of concern and cooperation. The sample phrases below will help cushion a challenging statement. If you memorize these verbal cushions, you'll be able to recall them easily during a conversation.

"I can see why you would be upset."

"I don't blame you for feeling this way."

"We need to look at this more carefully."

"I agree with you."

"I'd like your opinion on this matter."

"I can see where you are coming from."

"I appreciate your position on that."

"Let's stay on target with your needs."

"Sounds right to me."

"You're right."

"I'm sorry, let's fix this."

"How can we correct this?"

"You address the case clearly."

"Let's review our offer."

"You could have handled it worse. How did you keep your cool?"

Let's see how a few of these might work in some situations you might face:

You are discussing the new budget figures with your co-worker, Larry

Larry: "I think you're way off on the supplies estimates. We need to rethink that. You really missed the boat on this one."

You: "I can see where you are coming from. However, the construction codes in Plainville are different. To meet the code, we'll have to order more expensive materials."

Larry: "I forgot about Plainville's stricter codes. We'll go with your figures."

You get a call from an angry auditor.

Auditor: "I got your balance sheet statement from last month. Didn't you even notice that your assets and liabilities don't reconcile?"

You: "I'm sorry. Let's fix the balance problem."

Auditor: "First of all, you're fixed assets are missing several items..."

You're meeting with a client to review the cost estimates to build a new office complex.

Client: "I don't believe these estimates. They are $2 million more than we discussed last week over the phone. You said you were confident that you wouldn't exceed what I told you I had lined up from the bank and investors. Now I have to go back and tell them the cost estimates were wrong. They were reluctant to finance the project to begin with."

You: "I can see why you would be upset. Let's look"

Client: "You're darn right I'm upset. Do you know how hard it is to get investors in this soft market?"

You: "I can see where you are coming from. Let's stay on target with your needs, though. Let's review the estimates and I'll show you where and why the expenses are higher. I think you'll see that when we're done, the extra $2 million will make the complex more attractive to potential tenants. I'm confident that the features of this complex will keep you close to 100% occupancy. Plus, you'll be able to charge more per square foot than nearby complexes. With that, I think you're investors will be willing to put up the extra $2 million."

Client: "Okay. Let's see what you've got."

Verbal cushions help soften the information you need to communicate to others. When challenged, you're first reaction might be to become defensive and entrenched in your position. They are equally effective whether you are right or wrong. If you realize you're wrong, several of the verbal cushions help calm down the other party so he or she can get past their feelings and on to resolving the situation. If you are correct in your position and the other party is too clouded by emotion to see it, several of the verbal cushions help ease the transition from his emotional state to one where he may be able to more clearly see your point of view.

Criticism need not be critical. There are times, however, when you simply need to let someone know that something she has done is wrong. Giving criticism can be challenging to your communication skills, especially with difficult people. You need to correct inappropriate behavior while at the same time protect the ego of the person involved. If you deliver criticism in a negative, harsh manner-however right you are-you will do more to damage your relationship with the other person. You may get the behavior change you want, but the cost will come high: lack of trust, unmotivated employees, and hostile coworkers. The following tips, then, will help you to dish out criticism in a positive, non-threatening manner.

  1. Must be done in privacy. No one likes to be criticized in front of others. While this might seem too obvious and unnecessary to point out, you would be surprised how often we make critical comments to someone in a group setting. Perhaps it comes up in the context of a team meeting. Perhaps you are angry and comment to the person the first chance you get. Instead, invite the person into your office, go to the cafeteria and discuss the problem over a cup of coffee, or speak to the person before or after work.
  2. Preface it with a positive statement first. When you begin a conversation with a negative statement, you immediately invite the other to put up defenses. For instance, if you begin a conversation with, "Tom, the report you turned in yesterday was full of errors," Tom will put up a barrier to you and make the rest of the conversation that much more difficult. Instead, try, "Tom, last week's report was very helpful in our discussion with the CEO, and I'm glad to see that you turned in this week's report early. I was looking through it, though, and I noticed several errors."
  3. Make the criticism impersonal. Criticize the act, not the person. You don't want to focus on a personality trait. Since you're looking for a particular behavior change, focus the criticism there. Avoid saying, "Sally, you're pretty insensitive to the feelings of others. Don't laugh when someone has a problem with a customer. Please don't do that again." Instead say, "Sally, it's never appropriate to laugh at someone when he was working with a customer. Please don't do that again. Let's try to be more supportive of each other."
  4. Supply a positive outcome. A person needs to see that if an inappropriate behavior is corrected, something good will come from it as a result: Correcting inappropriate behavior should lead to future rewards. For instance, "Joe, if you go back and redo the Johnson analysis, I know he'll be looking to you for future consultations" will give Joe positive motivation to correct his mistakes.
  5. Ask for cooperation; don't demand it. Even if the person is a subordinate, you should never demand that they change their behavior: "Beth, I'm tired of you coming in late all the time. From now on, you will be on time." You may be well within your authority to demand someone change a behavior, but by doing so, you will create more hostility than you need to. "Can I rely on you to..." is a great phrase. It would be more effective to say, "Beth, we have a lot of work to get done in our unit and it's important to get here on time. Can I rely on you to be here by 8:00?"
  6. One criticism to an offense. There may be multiple problems associated with a particular act, but if you bring them all up at one time, you're less likely to get the results you would like to see overall. Pick the most important behavior and work on that first. For instance, you should avoid, "Lesley, I was counting on you to get your part of the report to me yesterday. Now I won't be able to add my pieces by Friday. I don't think you were very interested in getting the report done on time, and besides, you never ask for help when you're way over your head. I asked you to call me when you were almost through, and you never did." It would be more effective to focus on one of those issues, "Lesley, it was important to get your part of the report to me by yesterday. Now, I won't be able to add my pieces by Friday. What prevented you from getting it done? (Listen and offer help or suggestions.) Next time when you're not sure if you'll make it on time, please ask me for help."
  7. Finish in a friendly fashion. When you are finished talking with the person whose behavior you needed to criticize, you want to make sure that you maintain a positive working relationship. He or she needs to know that you can still be trusted and that any issues between you were not personal. "Rick, I'm glad we both understand the importance of double-checking figures. Come on, let me buy you a cup of coffee."

It's not easy to criticize another's behavior with enough strength to elicit change and enough compassion to protect egos. Supplying people with criticism takes practice and patience. Consider the alternative, though. If you cannot learn to do it effectively, you may find the label of "difficult person" applied to you.

A final word on difficult people. Our struggles with difficult people always take their toll on us. They may even push us to behavior we're not proud of. They might even trigger strong emotions. No battle is worth the damage to the psyche that nearly any battle can cause. Maintaining a positive attitude with positive self-talk can help us deal with difficult people. Personal growth is learning to handle the negative people and situations that confront us. It also occurs when we make it a habit to look for the good in every person to find "Beauty in the Beast!"

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