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How to engage with difficult people


Patrick Mayfield offers some advice on how to deal with difficult people and the strategies to put in place to ensure the best possible outcome.

Whatever type of business we work in, we are bound to encounter people we come to regard as difficult. From a management perspective, this is always going to be a challenge, and in today's business environment, probably a more significant challenge than ever before.

Working practices from years gone by have been turned upside down. 21st century business practice is characterised by increased globalisation, multiculturalism and technological advancement. We are having to embody change brought about by acquisition or reorganisation, and embrace more flexible practices, like virtual working.

All these changes mean that any workforce imbalance, even from just one individual, if not speedily addressed, can have a massive negative impact on the smooth running of an organisation.

There can be any number of reasons why someone is difficult to deal with. It is a fact of life. So how do we engage them?

Most importantly, you need to put a strategy in place in order for you to be better prepared and get more successful outcomes, should you be faced with the problem.

At the start of any conflict, it is key , however difficult someone may be, to listen to their point of view, in order that you can reflect back to them that you have understood. Re-playing back to them, as accurately as you can, their position, showing that you can empathise with their 'pain' and sense of threat as well as their rational argument, will be far more effective than a "yes, but" response.

In this way, you can make your position clear as well as emphasise that you also need to be heard and you are not going to be walked all over. It is useful to adopt the stance of thanking the person for helping you understand where they are coming from, make your position clear, and rather than using 'but' in your response, address any difficulties together.

Part of ensuring that you have been understood by the other person is so you have clarity in your own mind what the non-negotiable aspects of your own position are. It helps to be clear in your own mind what your fall-back position will be if you can't get agreement - your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). This could mean, in the situation of a project for instance, that you may have to refer the situation to a more senior person, to re-scope the project or, in a most extreme case, recommend that the project is stopped altogether. Above all, you need to have an alternative solution available, even if you never use it.

Ideally, you should know their WIIFM (what's in it for me?). Look at the benefits there could be in a particular situation for that person, as there are undoubtedly going to be some 'wins'. Sometimes, reviewing the scope of the situation together with a difficult stakeholder gives you both a chance to optimise the benefits and reduce the perceived dis-benefits for them. However, remember that a benefit for you might well be a dis-benefit to the other party, and vice-versa.

Engagement in a conflict situation can fail because we don't summon up the courage to make the ultimate request (the 'ask') of the other party. Sales people understand this and call it 'closing'. But we can make the ask of the other party in a way that acknowledging it would be costly in some way for them, but thereby implying that they would be courageous to do it. Simply making the request in that way can seem very affirming to them.

If necessary, to achieve successful engagement with a difficult stakeholder, may require reflecting back the consequences of their action or inaction. Explain what will happen if they don't work on this initiative with you, or if they delay making that decision. Spell out the increased costs, the reduced benefits or other consequences.

This approach can be particularly powerful and clarifying where the person doesn't yet appreciate the unintended consequences of their position. So you may even need to go a step further by making it clear that their actions and consequences will be visible to others, possibly to those to whom they are accountable. It is remarkable how frequently people reassess their position when confronted, albeit sensitively but assertively, with such potential consequences.

There is, unfortunately, no foolproof strategy in dealing with difficult stakeholders. When dealing with some people you are always taking a considered risk whatever strategy you use. But at least with a strategy in place, when faced with a confrontation, you will be in a stronger position by knowing what you want to happen, how you want it to happen, and when. Then, as you learn from each experience, (hopefully there will not be too many), then the more skilled you will become and the better the outcome is likely to be.

Patrick Mayfield is chairman of learning and development company, pearcemayfield. He published a book in September 2013, Practical People Engagement - Leading Change through the Power of Relationships, which provides a rich reference of practices and techniques on how to influence and lead people to new solutions.

The book follows on from research conducted with colleagues at his own company into how high performing managers not only thought differently but actually behaved differently. One of the striking differences was the amount of time they spent in purposeful conversations with key people in and around their projects and programmes. This time spent investing in relationships was somehow connected to the results they got.

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Patrick Mayfield


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