Dealing with difficult people

There is one in every group of people. Yet, it can be difficult to define exactly what we mean by “difficult people”. Regardless of whether you have issues with a particular person’s personality or one of your colleagues does, these tips can be used to help resolve personality conflicts that can impair board functioning.

Who are the difficult people?

They go by different names but they all have the same effect: shutting down debate.

“The Narcissist” – this person prioritizes their own perspective over everything. They are unable and unwilling to see any other side or compromise. Their inflated sense of ego can lead them to exaggerate or even falsify information.

“The Grandstander” – this person loves the sound of their own voice. They dominate discussion by making a mountain out of a mole hole. For all their talk, they may not provide any substantive input but they shut down discussion by wearing everybody else out.

“The Bully” – this is the most toxic person of all. They love a fight, but there is no predicting which one they will pick. They can be hostile in person at a meeting and even more aggressive behind the scenes. Their goal is to intimidate everyone and shut down debate to get their way, even if they are not sure what that is.

Protect yourself

The key is to identify these types of people and acknowledge your inner triggers. Knowing what is going on inside of you will make it a lot easier to interact to difficult people. Grandstanders may irritate your preference for pragmatism. Narcissists may challenge your innate modesty. Bullies trigger your defensiveness. The problem is not always entirely about the other person. It is about your interaction with them. It is critical to manage your own reactions so that you do not act defensively or come from a place of anger. Only engage with this person when you feel that you have full mastery over your emotions. In that case, it can be wise to set a time limit to the interaction and to debrief afterwards with a close colleague if you can.

Do not fuel the fire

Sticking to the facts is the best way to interact with these people. Facts are usually not debatable, but opinions are. However, too many facts can prompt a person to pick apart the details. Short and sweet answers that are grounded in verifiable facts. The less you say the better. In a face-to-face confrontation, try to remain calm and simply listen to the person without replying. You can reflect respect by simply listening and not providing a counterargument. Simply acknowledge the emotion that both of you may be feeling. “Thanks for sharing your input with me. This is obviously an issue you feel passionate about.” is more than enough.

Focus on commonalities

We were all children once. Even the most difficult person in the room. Everybody wants to feel good about themselves. Problematic personalities are often based on some unresolved need or fear. Can you determine what this person’s need or fear is? Do you share that need or fear to some extent? What can you learn from your interactions with this person? What other common interests may you share? Do they have children? Do they enjoy travel or other activities? All of this will help you relate to the other person as a human being and remove any reactivity to the person. This can help you to interact with them more calmly. If you are able, arrange to meet with the person in a neutral space, such as lunch or over coffee, and chat about these shared interests. Avoid trigger topics. This can be the basis of eventually healing the rift between you. However, in some cases it may not be possible to interact calmly with this person. It is wisest to simply keep your distance and move on. Trust your judgment in the case.

Find a different forum

If you are a leader in the group and there is no hope of resolution with this person, the next best thing is to find a different forum for them. If you understand their interests and have been able to hear their complaints, you will be in a better position to help steer them toward a different venue or to focus on a less confrontational issue. “You seem to be very knowledgeable on this issue, have you ever considered sharing your expertise with the ___ association?” Or “You seem really passionate about this issue, have you ever considered the related issue of ___ ?” Most people with these type of combative personalities are very self-focused, so it can be relatively easy to encourage them to take their fight elsewhere.

Board work involves people. And people involve egos. Ego management is the biggest part of working in and with a group. Hopefully these tips will provide a way to manage both your own ego and that of your colleagues.

They go by different names but they all have the same effect: shutting down debate.