Dealing with Difficult People

While many find it awkward and uncomfortable, conflict is crucial to healthy relationships.  Conflict produces better solutions, strengthens bonds, and provides the opportunity to see a variety of perspectives.  Conflict is actually a very positive part of communication.  Combat, however, can be dangerous.

Conflict occurs when people don’t see eye to eye about an issue, situation, or goal.  Combat, on the other hand, is when conflict becomes personal.   Here is an example of each:

Conflict:  “I disagree with the approach you are suggesting we take on this project”.

Combat:  “Oh yeah?  Well you’re stupid, and your mother is ugly!”

See the difference?  Conflict can be extremely productive.  Combat is virtually always unproductive and in most cases, destructive.

Unfortunately, conflict terrifies a lot of people. Some were raised in a family where overt conflict wasn’t allowed and people were passive aggressive instead.  Others were raised in a situation where really negative conflict—screaming and fighting–happened all the time and they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Neither is a healthy approach.

So how do you effectively manage conflict so it doesn’t turn in to combat?

Here are a few strategies to get you started:

1.  Be assertive.  Rather than avoiding conflict, getting aggressive or becoming passive aggressive, assertively communicate what you want and need from others.  Clearly communicate your expectations and ensure understanding.

2. QTIP – Quit Taking It Personally!  99.9% of the time, when people are frustrated or cranky, it has absolutely nothing to do with you.  Is that an excuse to snap at you or be difficult?  Of course not, but it is what it is.  You can choose to take it personally, or you can choose to let it go.

3.  Pay attention to behavior styles.  We all have a different style in which we communicate, and we see the world through our own lens and perspective.  Knowing the characteristics of the different behavior styles and understanding how to modify your approach will significantly reduce conflict. We will explore this in more depth in next month’s post.

4.  Use “I” language rather than “You” language.  Think about how you feel when someone begins a sentence with “You should….” or “You always….”  Instantly, we become defensive. But when someone begins a sentence with “I feel….” or “I need….” we are more receptive. Rather than saying, “You always turn things in late”, try “We agreed on a deadline.  What can I do to help you meet it?”

5.  Stay focused on the issue.  As soon as you make the discussion personal, you run the risk of combat.  If you keep the conversation about the issue, you will reduce defensiveness.

6.  Paraphrase.  “What I hear you saying is ____.  Is that correct?”  This is one of the simplest, most powerful communication tools to keep conflict from turning into combat.

7.  Seek understanding, not agreement.  Really make an effort to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint, rather than convince them of yours.  Share your desire to see the situation from their perspective.  Get curious and ask questions.

The goal should not be to avoid conflict but to embrace it, staying focused on productive outcomes. Stay tuned for next month’s post for more strategies and techniques to improve your communication and relationships!

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