Theodore Roosevelt said, “The single most important ingredient of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
Of course, Roosevelt never met that annoying guy in accounting you have to deal with every week, did he? And he certainly didn’t have your in-laws.
Funny thing, it seems that even the folks we find particularly difficult to deal with have friends, spouses, and social lives. So it’s clear that someone is able to get along with them. Why not us?
By putting in just a little effort up-front, you can better deal with the difficult people in your life. Here’s how:
1. Identify their difficult-ness
Just what is it about them that you find so “difficult?” Think back to the original situation when you officially classified them as such. Make sure that your assessment is the result of a pattern of demonstrated behavior, and not the result of a single interaction upon which you’ve been focusing. Once you’re sure, there’s a pattern, come up with a few examples.
2. Think about their overall goals
They may be difficult, but they’re still human. They have goals and objectives, and in most cases “being difficult” is not one of them. Consider what overall goals are driving their “difficult” behavior. Is that guy in accounting who annoyingly nags you for additional receipts just trying to drive you nuts, or does his pending promotion require that he collect flawlessly accurate documentation? Sometimes reflecting on the goals that affect a person’s “difficult” behavior can provide enough insight to make them tolerable.
3. Consider their possible fears
We all have fears, even if we don’t realize what they are. Some folks fear not getting work done on time. Others fear criticism. Or they are afraid they’ll be taken advantage of. These fears impact our behavior, even to the point of being perceived as “difficult” to some folks. If you consider that your “difficult” person actually has some fears that drive them, you might just see that person in a different light.
4. Observe their strengths
Perhaps the office assistant is “difficult” at times, but she’s a little easier to take when you realize that her natural affinity for details and organization actually makes your life easier in some ways. Or think about your “difficult” team leader whose confidence and assertiveness enables her to successfully negotiate a deadline extension on your behalf. What strengths does your “difficult” person bring to the table and how do those strengths provide value to the organization?
5. Look at the “flip side” of those strengths
Our strengths are positive, right? Most of the time they are, but sometimes they can be over used—and an overextended strength can be at the root of your “difficult” person. For example, self-confidence is a desirable strength. But when it’s overdone, we see that same person as cocky. To better understand your “difficult” person, assess what is annoying you and look for the strength behind it.
6. Determine how they judge others
How does your “difficult” person assess and judge others? Some folks judge others based on their ability to complete tasks. Others make judgments based on a person’s people skills. Or their problem-solving talents. Or how well a person can persuade and influence others. When someone makes judgments based on values completely different from yours, there’s more room for conflict—which is why you consider them “difficult.”
7. Figure out their motivators
As Dr. Phil might say, “What’s their currency?” Is maintaining a harmonious family top priority? Or are they mostly driven by career accomplishment? Does their competitiveness define them? Or is it most important to them that everyone just get along? Is what motivates them contributing to what you’re assessing as being difficult?
8. Note their reaction to stress
Apply enough stress, and you’ll see a person’s behaviors change. Consider if the “difficult” behaviors you’re seeing are a result of stressful situations. Someone who inspires enthusiasm in others may become glib or appear superficial when under a lot of stress. Under stress, a supportive, dependable team player can become detached, inflexible, and even stubborn.
9. See their perspective
Perform all of the steps above, and you’ll likely have a pretty good idea of that “difficult” person’s perspective on the world. And seeing that perspective brings some “aha” moments. “Oh, that’s why he got so worked up when I didn’t reply immediately….” Now, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still exhibiting difficult behaviors that you might need to address at some point, but you probably understand them better now.
10. Consider your own behaviors
Now that you’ve dissected the “difficult” person, you must consider your own behaviors and how that person likely perceives them. It’s never fun to think that we might be contributing to the problem, but you must take a look at the possibility that perhaps they see you as “difficult.”
This step is easy if you’ve actually done each of the prior steps. Once you see things through another person’s perspective and understand their behaviors better, empathy seems to come more naturally.
12. Speak their “language”
Armed with new insights about your “difficult” person, adapt your communication approach to better match their perspective on the world. If they value accuracy and high-standards, responding to them from that view shows respect to their feelings. Making this effort can help you head-off conflict and avoid triggering the “difficult” behaviors they’ve demonstrated in the past.
These 12 steps take a little effort. You may be questioning why you should have to do anything—after all, he’s the difficult one! Well, a very wise person—who I at one time considered particularly “difficult”—once told me that I had a choice: I could take the short-term pain or I could take the long-term pain.
Bryce Christiansen is an avid careerist, who runs The People Profiler, a web app that helps you connect with others by understanding their strengths, goals, fears, and perceptions. A version of this story first appeared the 12 Most blog.