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Dealing with difficult situations -- and people

By Mike Leibling, special to CNN
  • Many successful people still encounter 'fear factor'
  • There are strategies to deal with difficult people and situations, including reminding yourself it is not about status and power
  • If the strategies don't work, ask yourself if you should move on to a place that better fits your needs

    Mike Leibling is a coach, mentor and writer of How People Tick, and Working With The Enemy. His website is Strategy Strategy.

    We often assume that as people rise up the career ladder they become more skilled and more confident, but many successful people still encounter the 'fear factor' when dealing with more senior people.

    Here are a few strategies that might help us deal with them successfully. And remember, that if at first we don't succeed, we should try something different.

    Changing the mindset

    Thinking of a person as 'higher up' automatically positions us as 'lower down', a state of mind and body that's hardly helpful. We need to remind ourselves that we're just talking about a professional matter to another professional, that it's not about status or power for us. Another strategy is to think of a thick glass screen between you and the monster: you can still see and hear them perfectly, without any of their 'stuff' getting through to you.

    Getting the best of both worlds

    We all encounter dilemmas where we are expected to follow one path rather than the other, often against our better judgement. For example, we may find that what we're expected to do is in conflict with what we feel we should do. Or, we have to balance being seen as a capable independent-thinking individual, with being seen as a good team player.

    However, there's no need to compromise. We can simply ask ourselves: 'How exactly could I achieve both of these outcomes?'

    In most situations it's worth taking a few extra seconds or minutes -- or indeed hours or days -- in order to come up with the best solution rather than the fastest. We're no longer at school where it was important to come up with the right answer quickly. In life we need to find the right questions and then answer them robustly.

    The right person needs to decide

    Sometimes we need our boss to make the decision, not have them tell us to make our own decision, especially where there's been a pattern of this back-firing on us.

    One way to deal with this is to hand back a 'D+S' [dilemma plus suggestion] calmly, and with your preferred option in third place. So, say the boss wants a piece of work in an impossibly short period of time, by 3pm, what we might tell them is that we're happy to help (stay calm, remember!) and then ask:

    - would they like the full thought-through report by 10am

    - specific information by 3pm

    - could they tell you which other piece of work that you and the team should de-prioritise?

    And then remind them that you want to produce a robust report, rather than something that couldn't be relied upon. Then, wait for them to respond - don't fill the silence by volunteering again.

    Choose when to tame the tiger

    The best time to tame a tiger is not when it's attacking you. If there's been a pattern of behaviours that you need to change, plan to address it in a quiet period between attacks, and then discuss the pattern of incidents, not just one of the incidents.

    With preparation, we can feel able to speak to the attacker directly - including pre-preparing them by email or voicemail (maybe choosing a time to leave a message when we know they're not around). This can open up dialogue that is focussed on issues not on personalities.

    Take the initiative

    Taking control is often the best approach to retain sanity. I like this simplified version of Marshall Rosenberg's 'Non-Violent Communication' to plan and rehearse how to confront someone with an issue without wanting it to feel either confrontational, or an issue.

    What this model has, that many others don't, is a calm flow of logic based on facts, and a clear request. It avoids the response: 'So what do you expect me to do about it?'

    For example:

    - I've noticed that I've been ignored recently compared to other people

    - I've been feeling a bit uneasy and left out

    - I want to feel part of the team, as I enjoy working collaboratively

    - I'm asking you to help me to understand exactly what your intentions are please?

    The structure behind this is to choose the right time and place, and having good intentions to invite and achieve co-operation. You are stating calmly what's been noticed, what you are feeling, what you need and what is being asked for.

    What if nothing works?

    Sometimes - after spending time and energy on a situation - the best option is to get out, rather than get ill. I often ask myself if I am seeing a 'pigs' situation. The three reasons for never trying to teach pigs to fly are that it won't succeed, it'll be really hard work, and it'll annoy the pigs.

    So at this point it's worth being honest, and realistic. This job might have been fine when we chose it, but every day we go to work, it's like choosing it all over again. But why should it still fit our needs? We've moved on, the organization has moved on, and maybe it's time for us to move on and out, into a place that better fits our current needs.