fence photo

In collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and cross-functional design projects, encountering the difficult person is inevitable.

In the opening interactions with a difficult person, a lot of their behaviours (hostility, obstructiveness, complaining, blaming, general negativity) trigger the fight or flight response in us. Since flight is often not a viable course of action, we can be tempted to fight back. A fence can be quickly built up between us, making subsequent interactions more difficult.

The one move that can avoid (or recover from) this situation is to get across to their side of the fence as soon as we can. And even to avoid building that fence to begin with.

How do we get on their side of the fence? Here is my list of useful actions:

  • Focus on understanding their situation and their perceptions. Why do they think and feel the way they do?
  • Avoid expressing any judgement on those.
  • Let them vent. I am OK with aggressive language and words. But I draw the line when they are directly at me personally.
  • Remind myself that this is not about me. We are interacting for the sake of the project.  How can I help this person understand what we are trying to do?
  • Maintain the attitude of being of service. How can I help reduce their stress and pain? Even if this is something that is strictly outside of the purvey of the project.

The act of allowing a difficult person to speak, be heard, and be understood can go a long way to stripping out the “difficult” part. I have had difficult people turn into loyal allies in one conversation; just by working to be on their side.

Caveat: this tip only works on people who are situationally difficult. It does not work on people with sociopathic tendencies or a psychopathic narcissistic personality disorder.