Expert Commentary

Managing for Results When Dealing with Difficult People

Because of the nature of construction and the parties involved, disagreements and conflicts invariably arise that require the ability to deal with issues, adversities, and sometimes difficult people so as to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome.


Construction Safety
July 2016

An interesting situation arose in one of the classes that I teach at the University of California, Berkeley, that prompted this article. The particular class is Management and Supervision: Systems, People, and Performance Integration. It was the first session, and I was giving a general introduction and overview of the course, discussing the prevailing state of performance management (the world as it is) and how it can be different if it is managed holistically (the world as it can be) by the people in the organization.

A number of students, in one way or another, described issues they were having in dealing with superiors, coworkers, peers, partners, and trade workers. This seemed to be a problem both internal to their organization as well as when dealing with people working for other organizations. This brought about a discussion of how best to deal with difficult people.

In Construction in Particular

In construction, it is common to end up in workgroups. The project staff may have members with project responsibility while being a member of different departments, such as procurement, scheduling, cost control, or accounting, to name a few. In the case of subcontractors, their staffs will have to work cooperatively with those of other subcontractors in collaborative workgroups to further common (project) goals.

Due to the nature of the construction project delivery process, many of the people we deal with do not work for our company. So we have to be able to get them to work with us, and possibly with others, to get things done. There may be situations, such as making adjustments to their work process; revising their work sequence; modifying their operational plan; or complying with project performance, quality, or safety requirements to accommodate the project's overall progress, which these people may not be inclined to do. They may ignore us at best or become belligerent at worst. They may seemingly have good reasons for their negative stance, or they may just be people who are downright difficult. These confrontations usually trigger an emotional response on the part of both individuals. Our emotions drive us to our primal survival instinct of fighting back and/or to defend ourselves. This generally leads to escalation, polarization, and is counterproductive to "getting the job done."

One thing to remember is that not all people are difficult just to be difficult, though there are a few of those. People or employees may seem difficult or may act that way simply because such a behavior has worked for them in the past. That may be their fallback position in situations that they may perceive as somehow detrimental or challenging to them, or they may think that such behavior will be most effective in that particular situation to achieve some particular end. So in a way, they are getting some form of reward for their behavior from the resulting or expected consequences. One way to deal with this sort of behavior is to make it "unrewarding" for them. This generally will modify or extinguish that kind of behavior to some extent.

The people who may seem difficult to you may not see themselves as being difficult at all. They may feel justified for taking the position they do. They may not see the issue in the same context as you do. There may be a misunderstanding resulting from the communication (see two of my previous articles "The Role of Communication in Effective Supervision," October 2014, and "Communication Insights for Supervision," November 2014). The person may have, or think they have, a valid reason for their position. They may be under stress, be reacting to pressures, have goals that are not completely aligned with those of the project, or take issue with your position for some other reason. They may deem their position more critical, more important, or justified. They may feel disrespected, threatened, or anticipate suffering some negative outcome or even a loss, and as a result, they respond emotionally rather than rationally.

Five Rules for Dealing with Difficult People

Here are some rules that I've come up with to help those facing difficult people and situations.

  • In dealing with seemingly difficult people, the first rule is not to take things personally or allow it to affect the working relationships one has with others. When disagreements are not quickly addressed and resolved, they tend to create animosity. People who feel they have been treated unfairly may end up holding grudges. Holding a grudge is like beating one's head against a brick wall and fully expecting the other person to feel the pain. Such a stance generally results in lose-lose outcomes—no one really comes out a winner because negativity breeds more negativity, things generally tend to escalate or deteriorate, and the situation generally only gets worse. Aggressively trying to prevail in an argument may win the battle but ultimately results in losing the war.
  • One of the habits in Stephen Covey's book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." This is the key to effective interpersonal communication: you try to diagnose before you prescribe. When we respond emotionally and attack other people, we hurt their feelings and elicit an emotional response on their part. This understanding will give you a new perspective on communication and foster switching from emotional to rational thinking again. It may also help develop empathy for the other person and his or her situation, thereby improving the chances of an amicable resolution to a potentially difficult situation.
  • It is human nature to defend a position one has previously taken. The underlying reason is that no one really wants to admit they have made a mistake, as it might negatively reflect on them in some manner. But if we continue to ignore the fact that we made a mistake or are wrong, we create barriers to resolving the conflict. To overcome this, we need to impartially listen to the other person's argument, understand his or her reasoning, and admit we are wrong when it becomes clear that we are. If it is the other person who is wrong, then we must try to steer the discussion out of the emotional arena to a rational one, leading to a more constructive situation.
  • Emotional responses to a person who is in a negative state or frame of mind rarely result in a constructive or positive outcome. It will only trigger anger, leading to escalation with deeper emotional reactions and responses. The resulting investment of thought and energy in the defensive stance hardens everyone's position, creating a downward spiral and leading to a lose-lose scenario. This may also lead to holding a grudge, which may impact the working relationship between parties for a long period of time, if not permanently.
  • A side effect of negativity is that it tends to color our outlook, which is not limited to that specific issue, situation, or person. Negativity tends to infect our thinking in general, causing us to see everything in a negative light. When we have negative feelings, we lose sight of clarity, let emotion override rational thinking, and, as a result, may unconsciously react negatively to matters in other areas of our work or life with potentially poor results. Negativity seems to breed more negativity, and as a result, it saps our energy, influences those around us, and leads to undesirable results.

Emotional Intelligence

So, what is the "best" way to deal with seemingly difficult people and negative messages? It involves emotional intelligence (EI). The ability to express and control our own emotions is important, but so is our ability to understand, interpret, and effectively respond to the emotions of others. EI has five factors (see Figure 1): the perception of our emotion, the perception of the other person's emotion, the ability to reason using emotion, the ability to understand emotion, and the ability to manage emotion.

Five Factors of Emotional Intelligence - Furst - July 2016

The starting point of this notion is to be able to perceive our own emotions. Understand what triggers an emotional response on our part, and what kind of reaction or outcome results from it. Generally something triggers our emotion, such as an event or other stimuli. This then leads to an inner state, like feeling anger, concern, fear, or something else that then leads to a reaction and a response.

By having a good understanding of this chain of events, we will be better able to use rational thinking to counteract emotional responses that generally tend to get in the way of effective communication and understanding (see Figure 2). We will also be able to develop coping skills that will enable us to deal more constructively with challenging situations. Strong self-awareness will enable us to also become better aware of the emotions of others.

  Stimulus Effect Chain - Furst - July 2016

Our awareness and understanding of the emotions of others in any situation are also key factors. Having an awareness of emotions, understanding how they are created, and understanding how they influence people will allow us to deal more effectively with responses in people we interact with. We should become less likely to jump to conclusions or judgment and more likely to get to the root of the issue and the cause of strong emotional reactions in others. This will help us not only to identify when emotions in others are triggered, but also how to deal with it effectively as well as defuse it.

Understanding Emotions

The emotions that we perceive can carry a wide variety of meanings. If someone is expressing an angry emotion, the observer must interpret the cause of his or her anger and what it might mean. For example, if your boss is acting angry, it might mean that he is dissatisfied with your work, or it could be because he got a speeding ticket on his way to work that morning, or it could be that he's been fighting with his wife. You will only be able to respond appropriately if you are able to identify the source of the emotion.

After emotions are perceived and understood, they may be used to effectively manage the situation. People sense emotions in others. You may be able to use your emotions in a way that will convince others of the importance of the issue and your position, but it has to be done carefully. Reasoning with emotions involves using emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Emotions help prioritize what we pay attention to and react to; we respond emotionally to things that grab our attention.

When disagreements turn into conflicts, listening skills become crucial to the understanding of the concerns and emotions of others. Most people fall into the habit of thinking of a response to what others are in the process of saying instead of closely paying attention to what is being said. Emotionally intelligent people understand this and try to avoid falling into that trap. People with EI skills have come to realize that they not only need to pay close attention to what is being said, but they also need to focus on the person's tone of voice and body language. That is where they will be able to get a clearer picture of the emotions underlying the spoken word.

Acknowledging the fact that you understand how other people feel will inform them that they have been heard. Emotionally intelligent people actively listen, use body language to convey understanding, and transmit empathy and concern. By doing this, they are able to better relate to people and use emotions constructively as an asset.

Before jumping to a conclusion and confronting the other person, it may behoove us to consider the possibility that we may be somehow contributing to the problem. Sometimes we jump to conclusions without really understanding what the other person's concerns may be. It is helpful to find areas of agreement in the discussion, as it puts a more positive light on the discussion and signals movement to finding a solution to the issue at hand. At a minimum, agreeing on the scope of the problem will put a positive spin on things. This may lead to finding other areas where understanding and agreement may be possible, thereby moving from confrontation toward cooperation and possible resolution.

Exploring alternative ways to resolve any issue may contribute in moving the conversation into a positive from a possibly negative state. Asking the other person for suggested options that may lead to potentially resolving problems will put things into a cooperative frame of thinking. This approach may prove beneficial, as it diminishes the role of emotion in the conversations leading to a more rational approach to the situation at hand.

It is important to remember that when dealing with conflict, words convey a small percentage of the information, while body language and tone of voice play a critical role. Research has shown that almost 93 percent of what the other person notices and believes about you comes from their interpretation of your body language and tone of voice. When you allow your emotions to take over, your body language and tone of voice color the exchange in a negative way and hinder an amicable resolution.

Remember, you are trying to achieve or accomplish something: to get the other person to agree to do something, be it in production, quality, safety, or any other aspect of the project. Everyone has a choice in how they approach any given situation. When dealing with difficult people, you have a choice: to engage or wait to engage at a more appropriate time. If you choose to engage the other person, and he or she is difficult, you must use your EI to manage the direction and outcome of the engagement. Be calm and rational, listen and control your responses, and ask questions. This will give you greater control. When you can deal successfully with difficult people, your coping mechanisms will improve.

The whole idea is to affect a positive outcome and hopefully end up in a better and more productive working relationship, creating win-win outcomes.


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