Increasing confidence in dealing with difficult people


Rob Thompson is a TEDx and keynote speaker who speaks at conferences all over Europe. Rob founded RTTA to bring his model on interpersonal interactions to a wider audience. With the help of RTTA’s clientele of Europe’s top academics, he has perfected this approach to increase the productivity of teams of high-value people. Rob teaches people how to deal with difficult people. Read a script of Rob’s speech “Increasing confidence in dealing with difficult people” for the ECOMMTALKS Academy. 

As part of my job, I have to keep up with the current thinking on how to deal with problem people and that means that I read a lot of books and articles on the subject. I am quite sad to say that most of the advice I read is about how to cope better with negative behaviour. For example, if you have a colleague that is super picky then you are advised to be very attentive to their needs and wishes. If you have a boss who is a micromanager then you are advised to check with them before making any kind of decision or taking any action. If you have a colleague who is very sensitive and protective of their ideas, then you are advised to resist commenting on any aspect unless it is potentially disastrous. If you have someone in the workplace who is abusive to everyone then you are advised to remind yourself that it isn’t personal, and you should just try to remain calm.

An inordinate amount of the message is “That’s the way John is. John is quite abrasive. There is nothing you can do.”

I can’t believe that I am the only one who thinks this is crazy. When you have a leaking pipe, you don’t just get lots of sponges to soak up what is leaking out. Sure, you have to soak up what has leaked out already, but you don’t just resign yourself to a lifetime of water damage and continuous mopping up. You fix the damn pipe. All the advice on dealing with difficult people I hear is about how to be a better sponge for the abuse and bad behaviour and this is messed up.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the people who suffer most from these kinds of workplace difficulties are the people who usually suffer the most: Females, LGBTQ+, BAME minorities, religious minorities. All the usual ones. Even if you are not a member of one of these groups there is still bad news. Because this kind of problem isn’t motivated by gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, etc., YOU can and will still be on the receiving end of this kind of stuff.

As I said before, this advice to be a better sponge is just messed up. We don’t tell someone who has been mugged that it wasn’t personal, and they should just try to be OK with the fact that they have been assaulted and had their wallet and mobile phone stolen. Sure, they have to come to terms with their experience, but we also try and visit some kind of negative consequence on the person who mugged them. We don’t just say “That’s the way John is. John mugs people. There is nothing we can do.”

For me, one of the major problems with this barrage of advice about how to be a better sponge and how to mitigate the problems of the leaking pipe is the implication that the root cause of the problem cannot be fixed. And that is super messed up. It stops people from fighting back because they think they can’t win. They don’t even try to do something about the situation because they think there is no prospect of change, so they think there is no point in even trying.

But the constant low-level problems are just plain tiring. We tend to downplay the bad effect of these kinds of relationships because we tell ourselves that it isn’t that bad, and it was just a bad day and everyone has bad days. We tell ourselves that it isn’t that bad because other people have it worse than we do. We tell ourselves that we can cope and pick ourselves up and carry on. But the truth is these kinds of conditions are wearing. They take their toll over time. The loss of motivation or self-esteem on any one day might not be all that noticeable but it builds up over time. The erosion that takes place over six months or a year leads to bad things. Even if it isn’t depression or burnout it is still bad. I can’t think of any time when losing ANY motivation or self-esteem is a good thing.

There are (of course) plenty of things to learn about how to actually fight the fights but part of the problem is the type of battles we try and fight. I get that it is easy to shy away from the little battles. They are not that pressing and certainly not the biggest problem you are facing right now. It is easy to let the small things slide because you are not desperate. Maybe fighting back about the small things seems petty when there are other bigger problems.

However, think about what happens if you let the small things slide. The small things build up and you get more and more frustrated and then you get to an important thing. Some major issue crops up.

You’re now in a big important situation, BUT you have little or no experience of these situations except in being a good sponge. You have had no experience of defending yourself, you have no experience of clearly defining your boundaries. You have no experience of what actually works to solve the root problem. The stakes are high, so you’re feeling a bit nervous AND you have a feeling that there is no point in defending yourself because all the advice tells you that there is no point in fighting and you can’t change the situation. “That is just the way John is. He is quite abrasive. There is nothing you can do.”

Being in this frame of mind does not prepare you well for some kind of more substantive fight.

So, what are you going to do? Well, one of the things you can do is to get some practice indirectly solving the root of the problem.

Satisfactorily addressing and settling the small border disputes is a great way to get this practice. Addressing the little things does several things for you:

It teaches you WHAT works. It gives you the data about how to win in low stakes situations. It gives you the opportunity to test run approaches without much risk. It gets you to match fit should there be a big game.

It gives you the experience that you can win and so it gives you the confidence to keep going because you KNOW that it is possible to make a difference.

It gives your oppressor the experience of flexing too. Remember that they need to be introduced to the idea of not “just being the way they are”. They need to learn that they can’t just do what they like ALL the time.

So how is this fighting the small fights going to pan out? Well, it isn’t going to go well initially. If the person you have a problem with gets upset every time you question their ideas (and that has worked for them in the past) then it isn’t rocket science to realise that they ARE going to try that tactic again. The next thing they are going to try is the exact same tactic but ramped up to a greater intensity. Given that it isn’t going to go well, why do it? The reason is that short term results are different to long-term ones.

Dealing with this kind of behaviour is like dealing with a splinter (one of those little slivers of wood stuck under your skin). Think about it: what is the least painful thing to do with a splinter at any given moment? It isn’t to get it out. That is the best thing but it isn’t the least painful thing - to have someone dig around with a needle and a pair of tweezers. That increases the immediate pain. The least painful thing to do with a splinter in the short term is to stop using that finger. Protect it. Put off that painful dig about with a needle and tweezers.

A wise person once said that the only pain that is avoidable is the pain we put ourselves through to try and avoid the unavoidable pain. I’m going to say that again because it is a bit of a brain bender: the only pain that is avoidable is the pain we put ourselves through to try and avoid the unavoidable pain. Having someone dig around to get the splinter out is unavoidable. It has to happen at some point. The only avoidable pain is the pain we suffer while delaying getting the splinter out.

Just like with a splinter, it is going to get worse before it gets better. The good news is that it does get better.

Yes, you need goals about what relationship you want to achieve with the problem person. Yes, you need some practical strategies and tactics about how to actually deal with the problem behaviour and the person's reaction to your change in response. But first, you need some confidence to deal with this behaviour even when you are stressed. The first thing you need is the belief that you can effect a change in the way people treat you. And you might not think that right now, but you can affect a change in the way people treat you. One of the ways you get that feeling that you can change things is by addressing the small but frustrating dynamics in your life. You’re not being petty. You are getting into training for the big match.

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