Dealing with Difficult People

Several years ago I attended a workshop on dealing with difficult people. At the time I was an elected official, and there were a couple of “regulars” who attended our meetings and who questioned every decision we made. I thought attending the workshop would offer me tips in dealing with such people. After all, that was the name of the workshop. But the facilitator had a different perspective. She turned the tables and advised that dealing with difficult people means we must look at ourselves and our attitudes. The difficult person is not “them” but “me.” I was quite disappointed in the workshop and frustrated that I walked away with no new ideas for facing challenging individuals. And yet, that facilitator’s message has stayed with me all these years. So perhaps I took away more from that lesson than I thought at the time.

About four years ago I found myself on the hunt for a job and attended weekly “transition group” meetings. Nearly every week, and sometimes more than once a meeting, we were reminded that the only thing we can control in a job search is our attitude. A very similar message to the one I heard in that long ago workshop. This one stuck as well.

When I have a particularly frustrating or challenging day at work, my thoughts always drift to these two concepts and I have to ask myself, Am I being the difficult person? Does my attitude need an adjustment?

At precisely 10:30 this morning, I asked myself both of those questions. I had just finished facilitating a weekly meeting on project schedules and two of the people in attendance do not like being held accountable to schedules. Okay, most of us don’t like having to follow schedules but most of us understand the value of schedules and we try more often to meet a schedule than miss it. I have been working with these two individuals for nearly two years and neither has met a single schedule during that time. Today was the deadline for one of these people and the other person’s deadline of Monday is fast approaching. I admit I asked some tough questions, such as How much extra time do you need? and Are you willing to designate a day/time when we hand off the project whether it’s finished or not? Neither of the project owners liked those questions. One voiced a complaint saying, “this discussion is pointless.” And that, my friends, was the moment I felt my blood boil.

In that moment, I wasn’t a professional sitting alongside another professional trying to collaborate and reach agreement. Instead feelings of frustration and rage started bubbling up, making me feel like a mother dealing with the teenager who once again missed the bus for school, or forgot homework at home, or misunderstood the time for curfew. I wanted to ask these two professionals, What will it take to get you to meet one deadline? Do you understand what the title “project owner” means? And, the real teaser, How much longer do you plan to work here?

Of course, I didn’t voice any of those questions. And I didn’t let my boiling blood escape my body. I might have raised my eyebrows or sat up at attention in my chair. My voice might have become a little clipped. But I kept a professional demeanor and wrapped up the meeting. I went back to my desk and took several deep breaths and debated leaving the building for a long lunch. I didn’t leave. I hunkered down and got through the day.

Tonight, as this challenging day comes up for review in my thoughts, I wonder, do I have too great of expectations that these two project owners will someday hold themselves accountable? Do I need to look passed these two individuals and focus instead on company executives who allow unaccountability to thrive? Or, do I need to ask myself, Am I being the difficult one?

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