15 Tips to Mindfully Work with Difficult People
By John J. Murphy, guest contributor
One of the most common challenges we face in the workplace is conflict with other people. Maybe it is a boss who gets under our skin. Or maybe it is a colleague who rubs us the wrong way. In any case, we know it instantly. We feel it. Our heart rate increases. Our stress hormones kick into gear. We may even begin to sweat. Now, we have proof that this difficult person is responsible for how we feel. The evidence is clear.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. It is quite common to feel victimized by the blame game. Shifting power and responsibility away from oneself to some external source is routine practice for countless individuals. And if you feel annoyed by any external factor, you are one of them.
True empowerment is internal work beginning in the mind. We feel agitated because of what we think of the difficult person, not the actual person himself. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This means we have a responsibility for what we think and how we feel. Our thoughts trigger our feelings and often lead us to conclude that it is the external situation or person causing our stress. This is just another form of criticism, judgment, blame and condemnation – often the very behavior we are accusing others of doing.
Here are 15 mindful leadership practices I use whenever I find myself in a difficult situation:
- Be aware of what you are thinking and seeing. Note that what you see is often a projection of your own mind.
- Take responsibility for how you feel. Manage, regulate, and empower yourself by minding your mind. Be discerning and vigilant with your thoughts.
- Pay attention to your body language, especially your eyes and your face. Relax.
- Breathe deeply and slowly. Give yourself a break.
- Calm your heart by calming your mind. Be mindful of your “vibe” and know that it is contagious.
- Use silence for a moment. Say nothing in haste.
- Speak calmly and confidently with accurate data.
- Look at the situation with contemplation, not judgement. Keep an open mind.
- Ask yourself, what can I learn from this? Perhaps it is a lesson in patience.
- Empathize. Seek to understand what the other person is feeling. Listen carefully, without resistance.
- Challenge your own assumptions. Get the facts. Be patient and flexible. Maybe you have it all wrong.
- Find compassion in your heart. Perhaps the person you find annoying is silently suffering. See beyond the behavior.
- Focus on rational problem-solving, not emotional finger-pointing. Be optimistic. Demonstrate confidence and poise.
- Be forgiving. We all make mistakes. Forgiveness sets us free.
- Know when to call timeout. Sometimes, we just need a break.
As a business consultant for the past 33 years, I have encountered many difficult situations and people. My job is to lead culture change – which is synonymous with “How we do things around here.” Perhaps you can relate with the resistance I often get, sometimes from the most senior leaders. In one case, I was assigned to a business site where the site leader was considered exceedingly difficult. He had a very gruff personality and a strong, fear-driven command-and-control management style. He also resisted the idea of culture change, which was being driven by the executive leadership team of this multinational corporation, insisting that he was running the best manufacturing site in the company. Now I show up to “help.”
With arms folded across his chest and a grim scowl on his face, he reluctantly attended the senior management workshop I started with and he agreed to the rational, fact-based methodology we would use to improve things. I discovered he had no resistance to making things better and he was a very rational thinker. I reminded myself to focus on factual data and analysis and process improvement – and not the site director. Why make him the problem?
Through the course of the next six months, he became one of the greatest advocates for the work we were doing, and the entire culture reflected this transformational change. He also valued my coaching, opening to me because I treated him with dignity and respect. We are now good friends, and he has publicly endorsed my work.
In another example, I had a highly intelligent team member insist that what we were attempting to do in a thirty-day period was impossible. In fact, this man was literally a “rocket scientist” within a military operation. He was very vocal within the team, casting a negative outlook on everything we were trying to do. I simply asked him to trust the process or leave the team (which I have asked others to do as well). He said he could not leave the team. He was assigned to it and had no say in the matter.
For the next thirty days we focused on our mission (not one another) and we delivered exactly what we were supposed to on time. We were even given an award for it. My greatest reward from this assignment was the hug I got from this man at the conclusion of our work. He claimed I had made a “believer” out of him and it was clear to the entire team that he was a changed man. Note that my goal was never to change this man or anyone else in my line of work. No one can change us but ourselves. The best we can do is treat one another with dignity, respect, and positivity.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself this. Do you believe that empowerment is something that comes to you externally? From a boss or another person? Or do you believe you have unlimited power available to you all the time? All you need to do is learn how to tap into it. Think of this like a faucet. The water, like your life, is there to flow. It is meant to flow. What we need to do is open the valve and allow it. Remember this the next time you are dealing with a difficult person. Rather than resist and be negative, open and lead mindfully with authentic power, poise, and grace.
John J. Murphy is an author, speaker, entrepreneur, business consultant, and coach and has been for over 30 years. He has traveled as many as 51 weeks out of 52, teaching in dozens of countries around the world, with languages and cultures he knew little about.
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