Does this sound familiar?

I recently received an email from a client who wrote: I’m on a public committee in my town, and I’d like some help for steering difficult people in our community in a positive direction.  One person in particular shares her attitude in snarky, critical comments on Facebook, uses belittling, disrespectful language in meetings, and recently sent an email that was critical of the committee without offering any actual feedback concerning the issue at hand.  

This sort of behavior only hurts the district and damages the individual’s relationship with the committee.  For the most part, I ignore challenging people like this because it’s almost always a lose-lose situation. But, I’d love to learn how to turn the energy around with this person.  I feel like the reason she’s this way is because she cares and probably feels a little helpless and frustrated.

How do you recommend dealing with difficult people in a situation like this?  I’m happy to do nothing most of the time, but I’d prefer to have more tools for such scenarios with folks who I know and will run into in town.  It just hurts my heart that so much energy goes into this negative spiral when it could make such a difference elsewhere.

It can be hard when we serve on a public committee or board or devote our time to our community in some other way, putting in lots of volunteer hours, working to wrap our minds around complicated issues, caring deeply about making a difference. It can be harder when members of our community only seem to have negative things to say. And even more frustrating when we know that our critics seem well intentioned, but we don’t know how to get through to them.

This dynamic is often problematic in the workplace as well, where critical voices deplete energy, dampen productivity, and reduce morale.

While it can seem easier to label such critics as “difficult people” and ignore the situation, in truth, taking the lead and initiating interaction can be the first step in transforming a harsh critic into a passionate ally. Here are four important things to know to support you in your quest to help renew your relationship with “difficult people” at work.

Passionate critics are often potential allies.

When an individual puts this much energy—even negative energy—into an issue, it’s almost always because they care deeply about the topic.  If you can get on the same page, you may be able to help them channel their energy in a direction that’s useful to both them and the workplace.  If you can listen to them without being triggered, I recommend inviting them to sit down with you.  When you make the invitation, don’t offer to do or change anything upfront.  Simply let them know that you’d like to understand their point of view.  Even if the entire workplace is unable to hear them, to have you as an individual sit down and listen can diffuse their negativity and build a connection with them as a potential ally.

Underlying a person’s negativity is often a need to be heard.

When someone gets snarky, critical, and disrespectful, it is usually a sign that they don’t feel heard. This can lead to a vicious cycle because this type of language makes it harder for others to understand. The more critical they are, the less likely they are to be heard, and this may make them even nastier.  One of the only ways to break this cycle is for a caring person to sit down and listen.

Sometimes the best approach is an empathetic ear.

Even when you can’t give a challenging person what they want, or you go into a conversation not knowing if you can, you can still listen.  You do not necessarily need to agree with someone to hear them.  Listening is not always easy, but if you can do it, it can diffuse negativity and potentially foster a relationship.

When you’re listening, pay careful attention to three things.

First, how do they feel?  Next, what do they need?  And, finally, what is their request? Speak these three things back to the other person, letting them know that what they’re saying makes sense to you, until they can say, “Wow, yes!  You understand me!”  Until you get to a point in which they truly feel heard, try not to share your point of view.  Initially, this is not about being right or even trying to negotiate a compromise.  It’s about simply meeting this person’s need to be heard.

Once they feel heard, check in with yourself and see if you feel the need to share your point of view.

You may or may not, and depending on the circumstances, either is okay.

As you go into this conversation, remember that so-called “difficult people” are often passionate and caring but feel powerless or frustrated from not being heard. Taking the time to listen is an important first step in dealing with “difficult people” in the workplace, on committees, and even in personal relationships.

Are you ready to take your listening skills to the next level and lead with authenticity and integrity? Apply for a free Discovery Session to get clear on your next steps toward living your calling. And, click here to learn more about how executive coaching services can help you deal effectively with difficult people in the workplace.


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