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Dealing with Difficult People - 2 March 2010

The young gentleman in this photo is Nic Sheff. He was 11 years old when he first got drunk. Before long, he was experimenting with drugs and by the time he was in his late teens, he was addicted to crystal meth and heroin. The addiction lasted five horrendous years.

You could easily call Nic a difficult person. To feed his habit, he stole cash from his dad and younger siblings. He broke into his mother's house and tried to rob her. He begged for spare change on street corners. He lived on the streets. He repeatedly betrayed those who loved him. He underwent rehabilitation programs but continuously relapsed. He lied and schemed his way through a life he never expected would last longer than his 20s.

Then he entered rehab for the fourth time. But this occasion had the greatest success because of the question the doctor posed. He asked, “What’s your problem?” Nic replied, “I’m a drug addict and alcoholic.” The doctor shook his head and said, “No, that’s how you have been treating your problem. What is your problem? Why are you here?” That, for the first time, got Nic to confront the causes of his addiction rather than just the addiction itself.

And therein lies the lesson when dealing with difficult people. It's all about how you define the problem. When you label someone a difficult person, you divert your awareness away from their actions and toward their character. When you identify the problem as a difficult behaviour rather than a difficult individual, only then can you tackle the issue properly.

In particular, there are five main elements to keep in mind:

- Negative reactions: Be conscious of the impact of your responses. Negative reactions can give people a reason to continue with their difficult behaviour.

- Apportioning blame: Forget about blaming people. Instead, focus your energy on distinguishing the cause of the problem from the person and solving it.

- Unintentional rewards: Whenever you make an allowance or cede control, you’re rewarding the difficult behaviour. It’s counterproductive.

- Delaying action: Interrupt interruptions by acting immediately. Managers often ignore disruptive behaviour because it’s easier than dealing with it head on.

- Avoiding conversations: Talk openly about what’s appropriate and what’s not. Get your employees to assess their behaviour based upon the agreed standards.

Nic has had additional relapses since rehab, but they get milder each time. Just like difficult employees, it's hard to change the person he is, but modifying his behaviour isn’t as difficult.

 

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