Tips for managing difficult behaviours and interactions in the workplace

Managing ‘Difficult’ Behaviour – Are You Walking on Eggshells?

‘All those ideas around conflict resolution are really great Mary, but what about ‘difficult behaviour’ – someone who just won’t sit down and talk things through in a reasonable way…how are you supposed to deal with them?’ This was the comment of a client in a recent team conflict case. She described herself as constantly ‘walking on eggshells’ around this colleague.
It’s a great metaphor, conveys the huge effort that it must take to constantly monitor your actions and words so you don’t crack the ever so fragile shell. And the fear that if you do, you will, like Humpty Dumpty just fall off the wall and break into a million pieces.

So what do you do if you find yourself working with someone who brings up those thoughts or feelings for you?

  • Take ownership of your own internal reactions to this situation. If you are tiptoeing around someone, it’s likely that there is a measure of fearfulness or anxiety going on for you – it’s you who are seeing ‘egg-shells’ where there should be solid ground. While the other person’s behaviours are beyond your control, your reactions to this are actually of your own making – though it probably doesn’t feel like that. The most important aspect of these kind of interactions is to be clear-headed and strong in your own sense of yourself and not take on the negative energy – be it tone, body language, comments, arguments – that this person is sending.
  • Stop taking their behaviour personally. Your feelings of fear comes from unmet expectations about how they should behave or treat you. Realise that they may have difficulties meeting these expectations and while it’s not pleasant or the behaviour may even be unacceptable, the first step is getting really clear in your mind that it’s ‘not about you’. Notice if you are engaging in ‘victim’ thinking and take charge of this – the sooner you stop resisting and feeling put upon by this person in this situation, the sooner you will start to adapt and find ways to deal with it effectively.
  • Set positive intentions around any communication that you have with them and how you would like to be in these interactions. Frequently in situations like these, we spend a lot of time ruminating on some previous negative interaction that we might have experienced or observed and visualising further negative stories around the next time we meet them or have to talk to them. Replace these negative thinking patterns with positive ones for example make a detailed list of how you would like to be engaging with them. For example you might choose words like ‘professional’, ‘courteous’, ‘friendly’, ‘centred’, ‘unfazed’, ‘calm’, ‘clear’, ‘having my limits’. Reinforce these words by perhaps writing them down or putting them up on the wall and ‘meditating’ on them before a meeting you might be having.
  • If you have to raise an issue that might be contentious, start by communicating your positive intentions. These will be two fold: positive intentions of respectful interaction and relationship towards them and positive intentions around respecting each of your key goals and interests in relation to the substantial issue you are trying to sort out. For example if both of you are teachers and you need to speak to them about a timetabling issue around students, you might frame your opening sentence something like: ‘I would like to chat to you about the timetabling of the xx subjects. I know that each of us might see this differently and that that does not upset our working relationship or that either of us feel disrespected. Also, my intentions are around ensuring the students are best served by both of us”.
  • During the discussion, as well as focusing on communicating the content of your viewpoints, be watchful for how they are reacting to what you are saying. Notice if they are becoming defensive – either in their tone, body language, words etc. – it can also be likely that things they might be saying are making you feel somewhat defensive. This is where you need to slow down completely and in a sense step back from the content part of the conversation and work on bringing the discussion back to a calmer and friendlier tone.
  • Take a few deep breaths to centre yourself and remind yourself of your key intention words up above. Make a statement that reiterates your intentions for the discussion: Say something like ‘I can see that we both have strong opinions on this and I want to make sure that each of us gets a clear understanding of where we are coming from’
  • Make a statement that acknowledges that they might feel you were undermining them e.g. ‘I don’t want you to think that in requesting this change I don’t value your needs/contributions/issues, my purpose is that we make the best decision for all concerned’
  • Invite them to help you understand better where they are coming from and take time to check that you have fully understood ‘I’m still not clear on what the difficulties are that you have with changing the times…what is it that’s most important to you…? And follow this up with ‘So am I right in thinking that what you think is most important is xx?’
  • Contrast both of your viewpoints in a neutral, non-judgemental way… ‘So your viewpoint is that the students need xxx, whereas I see it somewhat differently, that the students would be better suited to an earlier time/subject/xxx…So our task is to find a way to ensure that all these needs are satisfied to the best extent…let’s chat further about that’
  • If the discussion does escalate despite your best efforts or get side-tracked into other unrelated ‘red herrings’, some things you can do are:
    Work very hard on remaining calm and centred, this will be the best way to ensure that you act in line with the key values and intentions that you have set for yourself and leave you less vulnerable to feeling hurt or frustrated by them

    • Say ‘Look, this is a tricky issue for us both, let’s take a break and see if we can sort it later’
    • Say ‘I can see that you have raised a number of other matters that I don’t feel are relevant. Also I want to make sure we stay respectful to each other. Let’s see if we can just sort out this particular issue and that each of us feels heard and understood, even if we don’t agree’
    • Say ‘It’s looking like our conversation isn’t working out, my proposal is that we ask the Manager to make a decision (or whatever other ‘arm-twisting’ options that you might have available to you at this stage)
  • Check out these two posts Try an EAR and a BIFF and Do You Know a HCP for further ideas


Conversation gets a bit rocky? Switch to a ‘meta’-conversation

How often have you been in what starts as a fairly innocuous discussion or conversation but then find a divergence of views begins to send things down a rockier path? What you had expected to be a routine or even casual discussion moves slowly but steadily to a mini-debate and then progresses towards an argument.

Suddenly you find yourselves trying valiantly to get your viewpoint across to the other and every attempt seems to meet with resistance – on both sides. Logical, rational qualifiers are put forward only to be slapped down with an equally logical yet contradictory viewpoint. Tension is beginning to creep in, frustration slowly builds in the stomach or chest area. ‘Why don’t they seem to get it’ is the internal dialogue on both sides.

Believe it or not, you actually have a choice at this point. You can either continue the conversation-stroke-argument further or instead, you can decide to switch gears and go for what I term a ‘meta’ conversation.

‘Meta’ from Greek is a prefix which means ‘about’ or ‘beyond’. So when the going starts to get tough in a conversation or discussion it’s time to switch to talking instead about how you are talking to each other.

Here’s how you might move from a conversation that’s getting difficult to a meta-conversation:

1. Don’t wait too long. Once you start to feel emotions beginning to rise – either your own or the other persons, it might be time to consider shifting the direction the conversation is going in. The aim is to move from the actual content and nuts and bolts of the topic being discussed to how you are discussing it, the effect this is having on each of you and how this could be resolved.

2. Name and describe the contrasting viewpoints that are arising the discussion: ‘John, it sounds like we’re thinking differently about this. If I’m reading you right, you don’t want to have the meeting on site with all the managers attending whereas I think they have to be there’

3. Use a neutral, tentative and non-threatening tone and avoid labelling either your own or their behaviour. So rather than ‘Looks like your’e getting a bit edgy with all this, why not calm down’ go for ‘Looks like both of us have a strong view on this’

4. Watch your pace and slow down – in the heat of discussion and enthusiasm to get their point across, people speed up in their thinking and how fast they speak. They also start to breathe more shallowly and lose the bigger picture focus. A mindset of wanting to ‘win’ the argument can easily take over. So take a few deep breaths, slow down your speaking, try to relax any tension in your body and you will find the other person will pick up on this and slow down too.

5. Give them space to respond and get a sense of whether they are in agreement with how you have described things. If they continue to get into the content of the argument, don’t get drawn back in yourself. Instead, reflect back to them what you’ve just heard them say ‘Yes, John, I can see you take this very seriously. As far as you are concerned, it will make a big difference to the content of the meeting whether the managers attend or not and you feel that is crucial’. Continue to reflect back their views until they are agreeing with how you have captured it. At this point then, you can highlight again that you see both of you finding it hard to move forward.

6. Express a mutually positive intent: As well as naming the fact that you see things differently, it is important to let them known you have a positive intent with regards to ensuring that you both getting it sorted out without causing ill feeling on any side.

7. Pose the crucial question: Suggest that each of you consider the following: ‘Why don’t each of us take a minute to think through and then explain to the other what is most important to them and why, about how this situation gets resolved’. Your tone in posing this task is essential. It requires an attitude of openness, curiosity and genuine interest. Any kind of interrogatory, sarcastic or smug tone will completely undermine how much the other person will engage and drill down into what it is they really need.

8. Invite suggestions and brainstorm ways forward: When each of you have articulated what is most important and why, then you can pose another question: ‘How could we go about meeting your need for x and my need for y’. If the needs continue to be incompatible then try ‘How can we find a way to make a decision around this that each of us can live with’.

Simply switching from a conversation to a meta-conversation when the going gets a bit tough will immediately shift the tone and atmosphere to a more collaborative one . This in itself is often enough to get the whole thing moving in a more positive direction.

Tips to Manage High Conflict People

Last month I wrote about dealing with what is termed ‘high conflict’ behaviours and outlined some of the theory that might underpin such behaviour. So here are some concrete approaches to managing such situations.

1. Don’t take the ‘bait: The number one ‘rule’ as it were in dealing with someone who is being perhaps rude, unpleasant or telling you in an unconstructive way that you are the cause of the problem, is to resist the temptation to argue back to defend yourself against the points they are making. This is of course easier said than done. When we are being ‘attacked’, we are of course programmed to ‘defend’. That’s why Robert Bacall’s analogy which likens this behaviour to a piece of bait being dangled, and which if we ‘bite’, we are drawn into equally unconstructive arguing back, is very helpful. So think of their outburst as a red herring that you are not going to be fooled by.

2. Go for an E.A.R.: Think to yourself – when you are angry with someone, what do you need most that might help you get a bit calmer? Most people need acknowledgement, someone to listen to them, to feel understood, to feel heard. An upset and angry person cannot problem solve. So the first thing required is de-escalation. One approach to this is by using what Bill Eddy terms an ‘E.A.R. Statement’. E.A.R. stands for empathy, attention and respect, so it’s about saying something that conveys that you are attempting in some way to empathise or understand that they are upset and that you are respectful in your words or how you convey it. It’s not about agreeing with the person ‘yes I see you are right about this’ rather something like ‘I can understand that you are annoyed and you feel it has been very frustrating for you’. So you are acknowledging but not agreeing with them.

3. Get clear in your mind what your intentions are: to get the situation sorted. If you are motivated to try and ‘teach them a lesson’ or get your own back then you are less likely to get the problem they have solved and much more likely to cause an escalation. Helping people realise they are in the wrong is a difficult task even when they are calm and somewhat receptive to hearing this, so don’t your time trying to do it with someone who is highly charged. Then use active listening and questioning skills to help you get clear on what it is their key needs and interests are beneath all their blaming and positional statements.

4. Respond with a B.I.F.F.: Another of Bill Eddy’s achronisms and sounds just like what you might feel like giving someone who’s on the attack! Well it stands for a Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm response. The essential message is not to get drawn into long argumentative and explanatory responses, rather you ensure you convey clearly, concisely but in neutral language your viewpoint or the information you need to convey.

6. Move them out of the ’emotional’ part of the brain: High Conflict People reside a huge amount of the time in this part of their minds. They are on high alert monitoring the environment for anything that might threaten their needs or sense of themselves. Strategic use of ‘logic’ questions can help to move them into the thinking or rational part of the brain. Such questions can range from ‘what time did x happen’ or ‘what’s your account number’ to ‘what three things do you need from this’ or ‘what’s your suggestion on how we can sort this out’ – all depending on the context of course.

5. Convey your willingness to help and a sense that you are being supportive by offering if you can a choice between a couple of options. Not only are you demonstrating co-operativeness, you are also getting them into the rational task of thinking and having to evaluate choices.

6. Set limits: Where necessary, set limits on the behaviour but try to do this in a matter of fact way rather than being either threatening or superior about it. So the tone of this message is critical. The same words ‘I want to help you sort it but I need you to speak in a calmer tone of voice’ can be very provocative if delivered with a wagging finger compared to a neutral, friendly tone.

So let’s take an example. Peter is a colleague who has a tendency to be very argumentative and challenging about everything and seem to have limited ability to discuss something in a reasonable way. You were meant to pass on an email last week but forgot. Peter comes bursting into your office, looking very cross and speaking in a raised tone about this. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t send that email – you are always forgetting things and it makes me look terrible now in front of the customers. This is a serious error and it’s all your fault. You are completely inefficient …etc etc.’

Here’s an example of how you might implement the tips above:
You initially give eye contact, listening, remaining calm and silent for a few sentences. Then you could try “I can see this has caused a huge upset…I see you feel you have been put in a very difficult position with the customer…Can I just check to get clear on what exactly has happened…an email came that I was meant to pass on…?” Peter might now start up again saying how he is always having to deal with these situations because you never send on emails on time etc. Here you would try a little BIFF.: “Just to clarify Peter, this is the first time I haven’t passed on an email. I understand it is frustrating for you with the customer and I’m happy to look at getting it resolved as soon as possible” (Little aside: Sybil from Fawlty Towers, dealing with her beloved Basil comes to mind here but you need to drop her superior tone please!)
In terms of choices you might say “In order to sort it out, the customer needs to be contacted and the matter remedied. If you wish, I am happy to contact them and explain the mix-up or would you prefer to do this?”

That’s just one example, but of course it all depends on the person and the context. Try it and let me know how you get on or what other approaches have worked for you.