In many articles about dealing with difficult people, including ones I’ve written in the past, the focus is on identifying characteristics of others that we deem to be difficult and presenting strategies for dealing with them. I’d like to pose another way of approaching “difficult” people by looking at ourselves first. If a person was universally perceived to be difficult by everyone they encountered, then you might be able to say they’re a difficult person. However, how do you explain the fact that a customer you find difficult, doesn’t bother your coworker at all, or a situation where a customer’s behavior causes you to get angry but doesn’t bother someone else? In every interaction between us and another person, we are half of the equation, so it makes sense to look at what we’re doing in these encounters to see if there are things that we can change that will improve the situation for both parties.
Identify Specific Behaviors That Bother You
When you start referring to a customer as “difficult” or their behavior as “rude,” you might as well stick a label with those words on their forehead. Every time you interact with them, that’s the first thing you’ll see. Every interaction will be tainted by that label to the point that you’ll see “rudeness” where there may not be any. Instead, identify the person’s specific behaviors that are bothering you. If a customer said your new treat display was too crowded, they simply expressed their opinion that there were too many treats in the display, right? Is it so rude to say that the display was crowded? When we focus on factually identifying specific behavior rather than labeling them with our perceptions, we remove much of the emotion from the situation and can see it more objectively.
Why Does the Behavior Bother You?
Difficult behavior can hit a nerve because the behavior is directed at us or reflects on us in some way. Some people are better at receiving feedback than others and some take feedback much too personally. If I’m someone who takes things personally and I thought I did a great job setting up the display, then the customer’s “criticism” would likely cause me to feel sad, hurt, or defensive. Those feelings have nothing to do with what the customer or what they said. Rather, these feelings come from my interpretation of their feedback to mean I didn’t do my best or failed in some way. In the end, it wasn’t the customer who made me feel bad, I did it to myself. Another thing that’s important to be aware of is our common human tendency to react most negatively to perceived criticism when we already knew we didn’t do our best work. For example, let’s say after setting up the new treat display, I looked at it and realized it was too crowded, but I didn’t fix it because I was tired or had other things to do. When a customer points out my “mistake,” I’ll probably be embarrassed and maybe defensive because I already knew there was a problem but didn’t fix it. It’s like the way we feel when we get caught doing something wrong as a child.
Focus On the Positive
Oftentimes, we attribute a negative motive to someone exhibiting difficult behavior. We might say a certain customer is always looking for something to criticize or another just likes to make people look bad. Although there are some people in the world who do that, it doesn’t do us any good to presume everyone does. It’s just as likely that the customer was pointing out something they saw wrong, so we’d can fix the issue. Giving others the benefit of the doubt or choosing to see the positive side of things opens us up to alternate interpretations we might never have thought about.
Sometimes, no matter what we do, there are going to be people we don’t like or with whom we’re not going to be able to interact with effectively. If you try these techniques and you still can’t have a productive interaction with your difficult person, then it might be best to get a coworker to help the person. Sometimes a new face or a different approach can change the direction of a conversation and get it onto a positive track. You can also learn a lot from observing a coworker or manager interacting with your difficult person. Do they ask different questions or have a different tone or facial expression that causes the interaction to go better than your attempt? Observing others successfully navigating a difficult situation can help you learn what you can do differently the next time you’re faced with a similar situation.