How to work with difficult people
August 20, 2018
Some things are simply better together: tea and biscuits; green tea and lemon; peanut butter and chocolate. But working with other humans can be messy. Everyone involved is complicated and that is a good but tricky reality. It means that while we are all are capable of bringing unique perspectives, we are also imperfect and likely to be carrying unresolved emotional trauma and hard feelings with us. Simply put, working with people can mean working with difficult people.
And yet, collaboration is worth it.
In the broadest commercial terms, collaboration is good for business, a view supported by Deloitte’s findings that, “Companies that prioritise collaboration are twice as likely to be profitable, and twice as likely to outgrow competitors”. More specifically, collaboration adds value by bringing together the experiences and perspectives of multiple people, resulting in work that benefits from diversity of thought. A study from The Neilson Company has shown this to be true. When looking at the development of product concepts it was found that, “Teams of 6 or more people generated concepts that performed 58% better than concepts developed by teams of 2 people.” Taking the time, then, to find ways to navigate relational complexity is a good investment. Tricky, but good.
In this short article, I want to share one quick move that anyone (from the boardroom to the coalface) can make to collaborate well with difficult people – or, rather, with people who are simply human and so liable to be difficult sometimes. The move is simple and is comprised of two parts.
To work with difficult people:
- Practice active listening, and then;
- Stop speaking.
The first part of this move is fairly well-discussed amongst management literature, but the second is often missed. Let’s quickly take them in turn.
Active listening is a core skill for effective collaboration. Much has been written on the topic, so I’ll cut the chase here. Active listening is the practice of paying attention to what someone is expressing to you, giving particular focus to the implicit feelings they are sharing, and then verbally showing that you’ve heard them. Such listening is ‘active’ because the listener does not just receive the information expressed to them but, importantly, takes steps to check back in with the person(s) they are listening to by saying something like ‘What I hear you saying is…’ or ‘Have I got this right? When I do X, it makes you feel Y?’.
Active listening is simple, but it is incredibly powerful where collaboration is concerned. It can serve as a way for collaborators to confirm that they are clear in their communication, and it can help to bring focus to conversations with colleagues. But most important where difficult working relationships are concerned, is the ability of active listening to help diffuse anger. When someone you are angry with expresses to you that they have heard and understand what you are upset about, it is hard to keep the fires of resentment burning.
So if you need to collaborate with a difficult colleague, invest in learning more about active listening. But don’t stop there!
While active listening is widely understood, one key point is often missed. For active listening to do its positive, relationship building work, the active listener must stop speaking and let the person they were just listening to respond. This is because the power of active listening is not in the act of repeating content back to a speaker, but rather in showing that what that speaker has shared is important – more important than your own agenda and what you would really like to say next. This means that if you practice active listening, but then move seamlessly on to an extended monologue about your own perspective, the active listening you had meant for good will be severely limited in its impact. Instead, the person you are speaking with is likely to interpret your behaviour as confirmation that you were listening to them just long enough to jump in and pay lip-service to their perspective before moving on to the main event that is your own view.
So here it is: If you want to develop your ability to collaborate well with people that you find difficult, practice active listening and then stop speaking until they have responded. Or as the 90’s rap icon, Vanilla Ice, put it in a slightly different order: ‘Stop, collaborate and listen’.
Taking Collaboration Further
If you are part of a team that is working on how it collaborates, Philosophy at Work’s learning and development offering on how to collaborate effectively can help. Our approach is known for making a safe space for diverse teams to co-create ways of working that really work. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about collaborating with Philosophy at Work.