Understanding Difficult People

This is a continuation of my last blog on Dealing with Difficult People. If you haven’t read that blog, here is a link as it’s worth a quick read: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dealing-difficult-people-mark-rosenberg?trk=pulse_spock-articles.


If the first step in dealing with a difficult person is “Self-Reflection” – getting a handle on what’s going on for you, the second step is understanding what’s going on for them. This involves the notion of “Perspective Taking” – stepping in the shoes of the other person to try and understand how they see the world. This is one of the most important skills a manager can develop.


In his book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey points out that before you can influence anyone (difficult or otherwise) you need to understand where they are coming from. If someone doesn’t feel understood, you’re going nowhere fast in terms of influencing them.


So how do we go about gaining an understanding of a difficult person’s perspective? It’s always useful to step back and think about what it is that makes someone “difficult”. In my work as an executive coach I often have clients talking to me about their difficult colleagues and clients. When I ask them to explain what they mean by difficult they use words such as the following to help me understand:

Painful, Selfish, Unreasonable, Rude, Condescending, Arrogant, Lazy, Petty, Control freak, Unreliable, Aloof, Foolish, Mean, Stupid, Inconsistent, Obnoxious, Disinterested.


What I find interesting is that when you talk to someone who’s being described as difficult, they rarely accept that they are being anything other than reasonable. For example when I am acting as a mediator in disputes it is almost inevitable that both parties consider their behaviour to be eminently reasonable, while at the same time telling me how difficult and unreasonable the other party is!

 What’s going on?


We all see the world from our own frame of reference and are often quick to infer bad intent and make negative judgements. “Mark has it in for me. He’s trying to make me look bad. He’s done this before. It’s always about him…”


In order to break this “blame game” cycle we need to step back, be curious and try and understand why the other person might think that they’re being eminently reasonable. What is the story they’re telling themselves to justify their action and behaviour? Maybe there’s some truth to their story and they’re not as bad as you think?


There are two parts to this quest for understanding. The first is a reflection exercise where you try and step into the other person’s shoes and imagine how they see the world. The second part involves you having a real conversation with the difficult person where you ask open exploratory questions to try and gain clarity and understanding. Identifying the questions you want to explore is the key.


It is again useful to draw on Sherrod Miller’s framework. To recap, Miller argues that we have five windows which shape how we perceive the world. He suggests that our experience of a situation is made up of five different types of information which are distinct, yet interconnected:


  1. Sensory Data (what we see, hear etc)
  2. Thoughts (the stories we tell ourselves)
  3. Emotions
  4. Wants / Motivations
  5. Actions (past and present)


Stepping into the shoes of the other person

Pretend you are the other person. By stepping into the shoes of the other person and exploring each of their “windows” you can begin to get a better understanding of where they might be coming from. Sometimes this can be quite challenging, but it’s a worthwhile exercise.


Pretending that you are the difficult person consider:

  • What is it that you’ve seen or heard that’s relevant to how you’re feeling?
  • What has [insert your name] said or done (or not said or done) that has impacted you?
  • What do you think about [insert your name] and what has caused you to think that?
  • Which of your values, needs or sense of identity are being threatened or compromised here?
  • How are your past experiences coming into play?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • What is your emotional state? How are you feeling and what’s making you feel this way?
  • What do you really want (for the organisation, team, yourself, other stakeholders?)
  • What have you done (or failed to do) that might have contributed to the situation?


Asking questions

Of course when you do this Perspective Taking exercise you’re guessing what the other person might say. Sometimes you’ll have enough information to make good guesses, on other occasions you will quickly realise you have no idea. That’s OK because this can help you refine the questions you need to explore to deepen your understanding.


The take-away

You can’t work out how to deal with a difficult person if you don’t understand what they are thinking and feeling and what they want. Stepping into their shoes and Perspective Taking is a useful way of gaining insights and will also help you realise what you don’t understand. This will then set you up to directly explore their perspective by asking open questions (what, how, when etc). By asking open questions you will clarify the situation and avoid making incorrect assumptions about what is going on. This will then allow you to make decisions on how you move forward.

But it’s not good enough that you get an understanding of where they are coming from. They need to feel heard and understood. That’s where consummate listening skills come in. We’ll go there next time.

Have a great day.

Mark Rosenberg