Dealing with difficult people

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Author: Bill Tiffan
Date: September-October 2009
From: Physician Executive(Vol. 35, Issue 5)
Publisher: American College of Physician Executives
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,602 words

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"Dan, you are an acquired taste."

Those words, spoken by the CEO of a large U.S. corporation to one of his senior leaders were an acknowledgement that Dan was indeed not only difficult to deal with but required that others adjust to him.

I was called in to coach Dan around one key issue: people found Dan difficult to deal with but they learned to tolerate his behavior because he consistently delivered the results. Feedback indicated he was too direct, didn't listen and was condescending and opinionated. But his results shielded him from demotion or even termination.

I provided Dan with 360-degree feedback (i.e., from his boss, peers and direct reports) and heard story after story about his approach. He did not see it that way at first and said "if these were such serious problems, how come I keep getting promoted?"

Sound familiar? I hear this all the time.

What makes people difficult?

In my experience several characteristics keep coming up that cause people to label someone "difficult": they see them as arrogant or argumentative or passive aggressive or negative or incompetent or some combination of these characteristics.

It's not unusual for some people we call difficult to have more than one characteristic. For example, often arrogant people are also argumentative. Passive-aggressive people often can be negative.

Difficult people impact organizations in significant ways. In clinical health care, for example, the inability of people to relate comfortably with one another because of these characteristics can lead to inadequate care for patients.

To avoid a possible confrontation, information may not be passed along in a timely manner. Arrogant and argumentative people tend to be poor listeners, which can be deadly when important information needs to be shared and understood.

Why do we struggle in such situations? The same three reasons keep coming up:

1. Fear of escalating the situation

2. Uncertainty about how best to handle the situation

3. Discomfort with conflict

The fear of escalating the situation is very closely tied to uncertainty about how best to handle the situation. If we had the tools and experience, we might be more inclined to take initiative. Overall, however, I find the most common reason that people struggle is fear of conflict.

Managing the fear of conflict is a challenge for most people. Whole books and seminars are devoted to this topic. You can gain significant insight about dealing with conflict by understanding your...

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