Great Book: How to Deal with Difficult People

I have found that some books work as great conversation starters. Several months ago I read Gill Hasson’s How to Deal with Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life. This book caused more nervous reactions from people in my office than other books. I later moved the book out of eyesight so that people would not nervously asked if I bought the book in preparation for a meeting!

difficult front cover

The truth is that I did buy the book to review the array of skills that are needed to work effectively with difficult situations and difficult people. The book is about communication and it’s a great addition to my library. I have also suggested the book to others. I appreciate the back cover, “This book explains how to cope with a range of situations with difficult people and to focus on what you can change.”

The table of contents is clearly divided into three main areas: Dealing with Difficult People, Putting It into Practice, and When All Else Fails. Each section is about communication; however, the sections also provide opportunity for introspection. What can you do better? And, tips for dealing with different types of hostility. We all have dealt with the co-worker who is unwilling to take on work. “Oh, I’d do it, but I just don’t have the capacity to do one more thing.” And, I know that this is typically a way to not share a work task.

The book also gives some great tips. Listening. I am getting better at listening, but this is a real skill. I have ideas and I am bursting with them, but I have to remember to pause. This takes work! Hasson notes that it’s important to be direct and honest, and offers some assertive phrases:

I need you to…

Can you explain?

Can you tell me more?

I think it would be better to discuss this at another time.

There are certain phrases that many of us understand that can escalate a situation. Using “you” instead of I. Starting off a sentence with: I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic, but. With all due respect. These phrases usually contradict what the person is trying to say and can escalate a conversation. The phrases are anything but part of effective communication. The backdrop of the book is that we need to communicate honestly. Never send an email when you’re angry. Pick up the phone or make time to speak face to face.

Hasson also explains that some people are impossible. That’s right–it’s not that they are difficult, but they are impossible and there is no way to compromise or communicate with them. You need to put on your thick skin and plan how you will communicate and feel about the engagement. And, Hasson notes that with the impossible person, you might want to not engage. The impossible person envelopes themselves in drama and relishes pulling you in. Run. Run as fast as you can and stay away from this person. But, if you must engage, try to make it on your terms.

I try to protect my time and will make sure that I have an immediate other appointment after a meeting with a really difficult or impossible person. I have also protected my personal time from people what some refer to as emotional vampires and seem to only need me. This is not real friendship. Gill Hasson’s book is perfect work and your personal life. The book is filled with lots of tips and I will likely offer a post related solely to one chapter. There is a great chapter on bullies, and that chapter deserves its own post. Here is a screen shot of the back cover.

difficult back cover

Managing the Workplace

This post is not so much about teaching and higher education or even popular culture. Those are common themes in my blog. Instead this post is more of a commentary on working with interesting and difficult people in the workplace. As I work with more people across campus I’ve learned many things these over the years. And, I’m going to place these in numbered points and respond to them.

1. Never send an email when you are frustrated, tired or mad. You might regret that email later. This is really important advice and I know that there are moments when you just want to respond and fire off your response. Instead, forward the email to yourself and say what you would like or open a Word document and vent. Then, respond to the email later.

2. Never send an email that you are not prepared for other people to forward. While forwarding colleagues’ emails without permission is unprofessional, note that some people will not blink at forwarding emails to share some funny or juicy information. But occasionally there is the colleague who might use the forwarded email as an attempt to get you in trouble. Now, I use the word trouble loosely, as it could refer to someone sharing something embarrassing or something innocuous. So, always be careful with emails. A colleague in the Law Faculty had once told me to take special careful with using specific names in emails due to Freedom of Information Act. And, I took her advice to heart. I use phrases like: our esteemed colleague, the interesting person in emails, in these few instances.

3. Be honest and fair. I have found that it is much easier to think before I say something and offer what I feel is my honest opinion. I might weigh what I am going to say more carefully if a meeting has already had some awkward or tense moments. But, I think it is more important for me to start from a place of honesty.

4. If you have a difficult colleague, try and document the interactions in case you have to report him/her. When things are documented it will make things easier.

5. Make allies. This is not about Empire Building, but instead is a suggestion to try and meet like minded people across units. You can get more done if you network and know more people across campus or your workplace. Likewise, it is good to have a colleague who is not in your unit or immediate division to chat with about plans or policies. It’s also very important to network for the sake of community building.

6. For those of us working in higher education, it’s an interesting place. A place of higher learning; however, all the pettiness of any workplace exists. Patience is important. Things do not change quickly.

I imagine that this sort of post will evolve. I was ruminating over some of these points the other day and thought I would share them. Hopefully, you have some other points to add or thoughts on what I’ve shared. Last thing—this post is not responding to recent event or person! ;-0