Management retreats are held regularly with agendas designed to educate and inspire staff to excel in their daily routines. How many agendas include a segment to educate those same individuals on how to communicate and deal with difficult people? Those who can afford it, and perhaps a few who cannot, pay to have a personal trainer make certain they get out of bed in the morning to work out and stay physically fit. But how many of those individuals think of investing a little time and energy to learn how to deal with people who cause stress at their workplace? Knowing how to communicate with difficult and challenging personalities may not reduce your waist size, nor trim your thighs, but it can make work more productive and more personally rewarding.
Those who manage others often face the daunting task of communicating and dealing with a variety of personalities that can deplete the manager's time and energy. The following, based partially on my having tested the communications styles of some 2,000 professionals in seven countries, is intended to provide helpful hints when communicating face-to-face with difficult and challenging personalities.
Managers have a variety of choices in how they communicate and deal with the difficult person. They can do nothing and hope things will get better - not a sign of great leadership. They can anticipate that the difficult and challenging person will see weakness in his ways and will seek a means to amend his attitude and behavior. My advice: don’t count on it! Managers cannot rely on difficult people to create change for the better. Why would difficult people change their attitude or their behavior if their communications and actions have for years gone unchecked? Difficult people are not motivated to make a manager's life easier or his career more enjoyable.
Managers must take the lead to make things better. You are the remedy for what ails your relations with problem people. No one but you is going to make the irritants of communicating and dealing with the challenging person go away. The following will assist you to create a more harmonious atmosphere for yourself and for co-workers.
Look in the mirror. Before pointing fingers and seeking a solution to any perceived communications or coping challenges, it is important to begin with a thorough self-examination. Are you certain that the source of the communications challenges or behavioral problems you experience is the other person, and not you? What is your mirror telling you?
Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with co-workers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? – We all have them. If your answer is yes, your mirror is telling you of a need to solve your personal issues before seeking a resolution with the other person.
Listen and understand first: Those who are effective in communicating with difficult people make it their goal to listen and understand before attempting to be heard and understood. Do you create an environment conducive for effective communications by focusing your attention and your energy on the other person? When you assist the other person to express himself completely, you increase the potential for him to hear you. When the other person is convinced that you are seriously hearing and responding objectively to what he is saying, he is inclined to lower those barriers that impede communications between the two of you. Are you truly listening to what the other person has to say?
Effective listening becomes all the more important when we realize it is the first step in transforming the challenging personality into a collaborative colleague. Active, empathetic, and responsive listening takes place when we genuinely care about what the other person is trying to tell us and actively reach out with questions, tone, voice, and body language. When people feel that they have not been heard, it only adds to their frustration and anger adding fuel to the difficult person’s combustible personality.
While most of us realize the value of listening skills, few, in my experience, have done anything about it. I have asked over 1,000 professionals how many have taken a course, read a book, listened to an audio tape, or viewed a videotape on listening skills. The response was a deafening two percent. Most of those responding were college graduates, some with post-graduate degrees.
Adjust your communications style: If those who lead others are committed to creating effective communications with the challenging person, then understanding communications style is a priceless asset. Understanding an individual’s personality and communications style allows a leader to more effectively communicate and to persuade others to his or her point of view. Through your knowledge of communication styles, you are in a position to defuse many communication and personality conflicts.
The study of the four personality types is not an attempt to “pigeon hole” anyone into a specific quadrant, but rather to provide information that will assist a person to align his or her communication with the communication style of the other person. The goal, then, is to assist us to be on the same “wave length” as the other person. The following will help you recognize each of these communications styles and assist you to present your message so that it will be acceptable to the other person.
The controller is a doer and often the driving force within an organization. This person leads others. He is characterized by emphasis on action and results. This person thrives on getting things done here and now. Just as the alpha dog must lead the pack, the controller must be first and must lead. Because he places high standards on himself and others, he is likely to be seen as constructively impatient and a tireless worker.
When communicating or when working with the typical controller, be prepared to move fast and to be tested. Expect the controller to argue, interrupt, disagree, raise her voice, and challenge your thoughts. Keep in mind that this behavior is not an attack on you. The controller’s communications is not personal; it is just the way he or she is.
He is characterized by analysis, details, logic, and systematic inquiry, and being a bit stiff. This person functions in a steady, tenacious manner, finding great satisfaction in identifying a problem, weighing options carefully, and testing them to determine the best possible solution. The analyzer is of great value as a logical thinker who provides objectivity to a complex problem. Don’t expect him to be the life of the party, but he will show up on time!
When communicating with or when working with analyzers, be well organized, have details lined up, and plan each meeting carefully. Speak slowly as she processes information more carefully than most. Pause as you speak and ask questions to make sure you are both on the same page of your topic of discussion. One of the surest means for creating a communication barrier with the analyzer is to generalize. Remember: think specifics when communicating with the analyzer.
A concern for people dominates the thinking and behavior of the supporter style. He is often sought out for his ability to empathize and for his patience with others during a time of crisis. An understanding listener, he can identify change in ways that reduce conflicting forces and increase the likelihood of cooperation and teamwork. A weakness among supporters is their tendency to become emotional, which may be viewed as a substitution for taking action. Of the four personality types, the supporter is the most likely to flinch – to back away – in a time of conflict.
Effective communication with the supporter is best achieved through an informal, open and personalized approach. Your face-to-face communications should be somewhat guarded. Maintain ample physical space between yourself and the supporter type. While you can be enthusiastic, even somewhat aggressive when communicating with the controller, the supporter will balk at signs of aggressive communications.
The big picture person has just arrived. The promoter style is characterized by heavy emphasis on ideas, innovation, concepts, and long-range thinking. The promoter will challenge you – not because she is hostile – but because she has learned the value of constant probing to uncover new ideas.
A fast and deep thinker, she questions herself and others. She is not inclined to take things for granted. The promoter is seen as a leader and a visionary capable of seeing new possibilities that others do not sense. This is a person with a strong ego who can come across as “superior” and can be condescending in her communications. Quick thinking and a quick wit are characteristics of the promoter.
When communicating with the promoter, probe for her ideas and concepts. Ask questions of this person. Because so much of this individual’s ego is invested in what she does and how she does it, communicate your awareness of her ideas, plans, and most of all, her vision. Promoters love to talk about their plans. Let them have at it. Sit back and absorb.
Word Choices That Stimulate Positive Responses
Each communication style responds differently to different words. Here are a few words that normally stimulate positive responses. Use these words to enhance communications with the challenging personality:
Return on Investment
Take ownership in the quality of work relationships –
When you take the initiative and create change for the better with challenging personalities, great things can happen. You set a positive example for others to follow who may have challenges similar to yours. You create a more harmonious atmosphere for yourself and for co-workers. Anne Frank captured the essence of this issue when she said: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” While changing the world may not be your goal, you can take pride knowing that through your knowledge of how to effectively communicate and deal with challenging personalities, your status as a manager and as a leader will be all the more productive and enjoyable.