Dealing with Difficult People

My kids are pretty good kids. I didn’t say perfect, but they at least want to do right more than half of the time. That said, multiple times a day there are arguments, frustrations, power-moves, and sometimes a show of small forces between them. It’s called, “contention”.

If you’ve been in the workforce for any length of time… Okay, if you’ve been in the workforce for a day, you’ve probably already seen similar interactions between adults, perhaps even executives. It won’t usually look quite as uninhibited as it does with kids, but its basically the same thing. Everyone is guilty of it, no matter the role from high performers to slackers. It happens in churches, in schools, in marriages, and anywhere you find…people.

Why are difficult people difficult? What exactly is contention and where does it come from? How do you handle it when it pops up in your team, and how can you determine if it is coming from you? I want to share with you three steps to dealing with difficult people.

  1. Recognize Contention
  2. Identify Pride
  3. Be Humble

Dealing with Difficult People 1

What is Contention?

It is in every movie, every novel, and just about every story ever published. You will find it in every culture, every organization, and every family. There is no shortage of contention and there will be no end to it as long as people have to interact with other people. More pointedly it will happen as long as one individual has to interact with another.

It looks like disagreement, arguments, anger, strong opinions, rudeness, superiority, disparaging remarks, and it sometimes disguises itself as competition. Here is Merriam-Webster‘s definition. I think the middle-section of the page describes it well by saying it, “applies to strife or competition that shows itself in quarreling, disputing, or controversy”. Contention is easy to spot, but seeing it happen and recognizing contention itself, are two very different things.

1. Recognize Contention

I need to publish a blog-post on self-awareness because I think self-awareness is a critical aspect of great leadership. If you don’t practice self-awareness, you will have a hard time recognizing contention in yourself. Most of the time, I don’t even think we really recognize it in others. Don’t get me wrong. We certainly notice what it looks like – a heated discussion, differences of opinion, unhealthy competition. But we don’t see “it” – the thing that it is. We just see the emotion and feel the frustration.

It’s kind of like when a population panics and buys out all the toilet paper. They don’t know what exactly they are doing and why. #coronavirusreference. My son, Uriah [yoo-ry-uh] asked, “why do people panic and buy everything?” I explained it to him this way.

If you are walking down a dark street and someone goes running by you, and they look like they are really scared. You will probably start running with them afraid of whatever it is they might be running from. Then you both will run past another person, then another. Soon, a whole pack of people are running through the dark, afraid of…well, only the first person really knows why.

People don’t recognize what they are doing, or why they are doing it, when they are led by emotion. You have to be self-aware enough, in each moment, as a leader, to know when contention begins in order to effectively manage it. If you try to handle contention with your emotions, you will lose every time – even when you feel like you “won”. Don’t lead with emotions, and stop reacting…

What makes difficult people, difficult?

Once you get to the point where you can recognize contention in the moment, what do you do with it? You have to know where it comes from to really do something about it. So I’ll tell you a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret. It’s written in one of, if not the most read book of all time, the Bible.

It’s found in Proverbs 13:10, which reads, “only by pride cometh contention, but with the well advised is wisdom.” I’ll get to the pride part, but I just want to say that I hope you find thejoshstephens.com to be a place of advice and ultimately a place of wisdom. Almost everything I share here is my personal experience infused and rooted in Biblical truths.

So back to pride. It is pretty clear that pride is the reason difficult people are difficult. A lot of people overlook the first word though, “only”. That simplifies things. If pride was one of many things to consider, that would certainly be more complicated, but Proverbs 13 teaches that it is the only source of contention. So difficult people are difficult, or contentious because of their pride. As leaders, we can work with that.

What is Pride?

Now that you know what contention is, what is pride? Unfortunately, there are multiple definitions for pride in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as in the Oxford Learners dictionary. So I thought it would make sense to first look up the original Hebrew word that we get the word “pride” from in this particular Bible verse. Sorry if this feels like it’s getting deep. It is.

The Hebrew word behind “pride” in Proverbs 10:13 is “zadown” and means “insolent”. Merriam describes nsolent as “insultingly contemptuous in speech or conduct, overbearing. Exhibiting boldness or effrontery, impudent.” To simplify, pride carries the meaning of arrogance, and self-importance. So when you recognize contention in the moment, or if you know you are about to deal with someone difficult, look for the source of pride behind the contention.

2. Identify Pride

If you can recognize contention in the moment, and not just react to it, you are one step ahead of most people. Knowing that pride is the reason someone is being contentious, can be a game-changer for how you lead and overcome it.

The second step to dealing with difficult people is to identify who has the pride that is causing the contention, and why. It only matters who has it, insomuch that you need to figure out how best to address it. This is usually pretty straightforward because most of the time, there is pride in everyone involved.

If you can set aside your emotions for a few seconds, your biases, and your own pride, it’s not difficult to see who the pride is coming from. I’ll post other blogs in the future on how to deal with specific situations. For instance, you might use a different tactic when dealing with a co-worker who is a know-it-all, than you would when dealing with a colleague from a different department who thinks you are moving too much of their cheese. For now, you have to recognize that the only person in any situation that you can really change, is you. So how do you respond and diffuse pride in other people?

3. Act with Humility

The opposite of “pride” is humility. One of my favorite authors is John Maxwell. In the video below he talks a little bit about what humility in the workplace looks like. By the way, you can find a lot more great leadership content at johnmaxwell.com, or click on the suggested reading in the sidebar. I also have other recommendations for reading on my reading list. After the video I’ll share what humility looks like in the context of dealing with difficult people.

I like what he said about humility feeling lonely sometimes. It will because many, I’d even say most people I find in leadership do not exhibit humility and it almost always comes across as an inability to think differently and adopt change.

When you are dealing with difficult people, they typically expect you to be difficult too. Some phrases you can use to diffuse a difficult situation are, “I know I was wrong about that and I’m sorry”. Or, “here’s my approach. How do you think we can improve it?”. Try that first one in your marriage and see how it works. It’s so hard to do, but it works.

Being kind, vulnerable, and authentic is a disarming response to insolent people in the moment. If they don’t show it on their face, they will certainly think about it afterwards. When they expect a fight and instead they find someone who wants to partner, it changes the conversation. Don’t expect it overnight or even within a week. But you’ll get better results with humility than you will with a reactive, prideful approach. If you can see it from their perspective, you may also find their ideas mixed with your own are better than either of your ideas alone.

How are you going to deal with difficult people?

Do you have the courage to be vulnerable? Are you brave enough to be the first to acknowledge the value of the other person? Being humble is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. When you have to deal with difficult people remember these three steps:

  1. Recognize Contention
  2. Identify Pride
  3. Be Humble

Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

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