“We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
“How do I best deal with difficult people, especially when I have to?” That’s one of the most common questions that comes up with creative pros.
We focus too much on the first half of that question—how.
It’s the least interesting part of solving that problem, because it assumes all your assumptions are correct.
When that happens, you overlook far more important questions: “is this person difficult and do I actually have to deal with them?”
There are three forces that keep us in unhappy situations: choice, contract or force.
These are in order of likelihood.
But we trick ourselves into believing that the order is reversed.
Most difficulties we find ourselves in are a consequence of a choice we have made, not force.
Your boss is a choice. Your client is a choice. Your partner is a choice.
Your decision to stay with any of them is a choice.
It’s worth examining why you make that choice.
What is the glue that bonds you to circumstance? Some people thrive on conflict, but are incapable of owning their discord. Others are so conflict averse that they engage in avoidance behaviour: wounding themselves deeply and repeatedly rather dealing with a problem.
At either extreme and at every point in between, there is one constant: judgment. It’s entirely within your power how you choose to judge others on their actions and words. But take note, as essayist Mary Karr reminds: “the voice you use to criticize everybody else is the exact same voice you use to criticize yourself with.”
The second kind of situation where you deal with difficult people involves a matter of contract. Delivery and disputes there come down to two things: expectations and promises.
If the other party has unrealistic or false expectations of you in that contract, that’s their problem to solve. If it’s a reasonable and clear expectation, that’s yours to tackle. Same goes for promises. It’s your job to keep yours. It’s their job to keep theirs. Don’t confuse those jobs.
The third and final way we find ourselves dealing with difficult people is where force is involved. Once choice and contract are factored in, those remaining cases are rare. Here, your job is to recognize the untenableness of your situation and develop an exit strategy.
With all difficulties—people and situations alike—resist becoming that which you oppose.
Recognize that in all conflict, we are being given an opportunity to show compassion to ourselves and to others. There in that discord, working with the clay of our hearts, we shape a fearlessness and kindness that can change us, but only if we allow it.
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