Strategies for Communicating with Difficult People

Strategies for Communicating with Difficult People

Coaching Matters
by Michéle Roy

Today, I would like to share a couple of examples of how you can work more effectively with difficult people. One example is with a narcissistic boss, the other is when working with complaining and critical peers.

The Narcissistic - Boss

My clients who work for, or with narcissists, are having to manage themselves to the extreme, causing them to over-think their actions and undermine their leadership effectiveness. For instance, trying to plan meetings with a boss who is a narcissist can be problematic. They can agree to your role in the meeting and the information you will share at the meeting, only to change plans during the meeting and reveal information that was not agreed to. It creates many opportunities for miscommunication and unproductive performance, as my client's find they try to stay under the radar of their boss. The behaviour of a narcissist is unpredictable and unnerving. They point to you as if you are an idiot (usually in public) one minute, and treat you like gold the next minute. The narcissist leader is most often thinking, " none of these workers would be anywhere without me", or " if people cross the line with me they deserve to be ridiculed". One thing to remember is narcissist's lack confidence, and will lash out at you if you make them look bad, as they are very concerned with how they look in the eyes of others.  They are quick to blame and rarely take responsibility for their reactions. This is demoralizing to say the least, what can you do?

Respect yourself: Speak up without being reactive or emotionally charged. State the facts, and the impact their behaviors are having on you.

Clarify expectations: Always leave the conversation by clarifying your boss's expectations and follow up with an email paper trail.

Keep the organization top of mind: Highlight the organization's and team priorities. Have your performance reflect the priorities of the organization and team. Voice the common goals that you both want to achieve.

Complaining & Critical Peers

When peers are continuously critical of you, your leader and stakeholders, they also bring down the team morale. People who come to meetings and are continuously critical of other's accomplishments or ideas, reduce the team's capacity for solutions and innovative thinking. Their communication style keep others in a defensive frame of mind. These folks often refer to themselves as providers of valuable insights, but fail to recognize the negative contribution and impact of their communication style in "real time". Looking at situations or events critically is important to making improvements, however, when these complainers and fault finders point their criticism at peers and individuals, this becomes toxic.

They seem to want their peers to admit their decisions/actions were wrong, making their accusations personal. They also are unable to listen while being supportive, making it difficult to foster relationships. They not only point out your faults, but your colleague's faults as well. This can kill team motivation and performance, and reduce productivity substantially. What can you do?

Review your intentions: Question whether you have contributed to this situation and what might be some assumptions you are making about the situation. Example: perhaps these are folks that require more information to feel prepared before a meeting. How can you prepare your team effectively for meetings, so they can have relevant input vs. negative input into meetings.

Call out bad behaviours: Share the impact of their criticism on you and the team, help them become aware of their impact on others and suggest a new way for them to communicate with you that would be more effective.

Involve them earlier on in work conversations: Ask for their input early and create an agreement on how they will support you and the team going forward.

Don't give them so much air time: As a leader, limit yours and the team's toleration of their endless complaints by confronting them and challenging them to offer up solutions. Say to them " A complaint is an unexpressed request. What is the request you would like to make of the team?"

Difficult people are often unaware of their negative impact and must rely on their peers to give them feedback. If peers hold back on the constructive feedback required, everyone suffers and no one takes responsibility. It becomes a liability to the organization and your more talented employees leave or even worse, reduce their efforts at work. Either way, the organization is missing out on the opportunity to build a stronger and healthier culture at work.

If you are in a situation that is impacting your effectiveness at work, talk to a coach and get the support you need to address your tolerations at work. Tolerations can zap your energy, motivation and undermine your team's performance.

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