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