In our most recent educational webinar series, “Working with Difficult Personalities: How to Survive and Thrive,” presenters Laura A. Conour, DVM, DACLAM, and Pamela Straeter, MS, RLATG, CMAR, CPIA, discuss how to overcome difficult personalities in lab animal science.
There will be conflicts in the workplace – it’s inevitable. In fact, you will probably encounter “difficult personalities” wherever you work. So, Straeter and Conour recommend shifting your perspective about people with difficult personalities. How? They suggest reframing the way you think. Instead of “difficult personality,” think “different personality.” Adjusting your point of view can help make these problems easier to tackle.
What Characteristics Do People With Difficult Personalities Share?
Spending a minute with someone with an exhausting personality can feel like hours. Someone simply mentioning a person like this can make you feel tense. It requires extra energy, time, and attention to accommodate them. So, how can you define what makes them so challenging to be around?
- Others consider them difficult (not just you)
- Their negative behavior is consistent and predictable
- They are often abrasive or uncooperative
- They tend to be poor problem solvers and don’t take accountability for their actions
- Their behavior is usually disproportionate to situations
If anything on the list above strikes a chord with you, it’s perfectly normal. Most people, at some point, deal with someone who is challenging. But the good news is you can learn how to get along with them.
The key to working with a “difficult” coworker is self-awareness. Conour and Straeter suggest that if you’re having a conflict with someone difficult, remember to look at yourself. Ask yourself, what role am I playing here, and am I over responding to a behavior or situation? Ultimately, taking accountability to keep your side of the street clean is imperative in any interpersonal relationship. You can start to improve your self-awareness by taking some time to learn about your conflict management style.
Understanding Your Conflict Management Style
According to Conour and Straeter, the first step toward better conflict resolution in the workplace is learning about your conflict management style. Then, you can be more apt to understand others. They explain that when a genuine conflict arises with someone and emotions are running high, you tend to adopt the conflict management style that is most comfortable for you. Unfortunately, the one you’re most comfortable with is not always the most effective.
So, what are the different types of conflict management styles?
- Competing style
- Avoiding style
- Accommodating style
- Collaborating style
- Compromising style
1. The Competing Style
This competitive conflict management style is known as the “shark.” For someone who adopts this method, the goal or perceived solution to a problem is all that matters. Believe it or not, this style can be helpful in situations that require a quick decision. But it’s not the most effective for developing long-term solutions.
Characteristics of the Competing Style:
- Values goals more than relationships
- Sometimes ignores opposing views
- Sometimes overpowers others to achieve goals
- Intimidates and silences others
- Others are not empowered to share ideas or contributions
Strategies for Interacting with Competing Style:
Communication is essential when interacting with someone who uses a competing style. Before you engage in conflict resolution, articulate that both of your authorities to make this decision must be recognized and respected. Also, explain that both parties must accept a decision before moving forward.
2. The Avoiding Style
It’s the opposite of the competing style. It gets the nickname “turtle style” because people who adopt it tend to retreat at the sight of conflict, like a turtle hiding in its shell. It can seem impossible to work with someone who runs away from problems. But have no fear – you can draw them out of their shell with practice.
Characteristics of the Avoiding Style:
- Avoids confrontation at all costs, to the detriment of relationships
- Deliberately ignores uncomfortable situations
- Hopes the problem will go away without their involvement
- They don’t offer any input
- Unattended issues fester
- Communication is limited
- Decisions get made unilaterally
Strategies for Interacting
The misconception about someone who uses this approach is that they simply don’t care. But often, that’s not the case. They just need some coaxing. So, be patient as you draw them out of their shell. Listen to them attentively, employ long pauses, minimize your comments, and be patient. You might be pleasantly surprised about what this person offers once you draw them out.
3. The Accommodating Style
This style prioritizes the relationship over the outcome of a conflict. The goal of someone who uses this style is to concede to the other party and maintain a positive relationship. The misconception is that someone who uses this style is a pushover. But it can be an effective conflict management style in the right situation. Especially in circumstances where you know you’re wrong. Or when the relationship is more important than resolving the conflict.
- Values and preserves relationships over goals
- Often avoids conflict and opposes the change
- Typically not assertive
- Often plays the roles of a martyr, complainer, or saboteur
- Difficult to get them to sit down and deal with the issues at hand
Strategies for Interacting
The best way to interact with someone who uses this approach is to be very specific about what you need from them and what actions you need them to take. You must be firm with them. For example, try saying, “I know you don’t like to cause waves, but I need you to be more direct with me about this problem.”
4. The Collaborating Style
Someone who uses the collaborative style tends to view conflict as a problem to solve. This problem-solving attitude decreases tensions and improves relationships. They approach a conflict with the perspective that both parties are right. They listen to others’ ideas, empathize, and find a middle ground. This approach is best for sustained and long-term results. But it’s not always the best approach when there are time constraints.
- Relationships and goals are valued equally
- Aims to find a creative solution that satisfies all
- The goal is a “win-win” solution
- Too much time to invest in resolving the problem
- Can make others feel taken advantage of or forced to adopt a “win-win” solution
Strategies for Interacting:
It’s important to delineate the non-negotiable issues from the flexible ones. Otherwise, you might spend too much time problem-solving. Overall, open and honest communication works exceptionally well with this method.
5. The Compromising Style
This style equally emphasizes the relationship and the outcome of the conflict. This conflict resolution style awards mutual gains to both sides. But, both sides also give up something to reach a compromise. Which sometimes makes this a lose-lose style, depending on the issue.
- Mutual gains on both sides
- Both parties are not happy or upset
- Lack of creativity in reaching solutions
- Not able to develop long-term goals
- Constant concessions that prohibit genuine resolutions
- The outcome often results in dissatisfaction and resentment
Be Proactive to Rise Above Difficult Personalities
Now that you understand the five most common conflict management styles, you can navigate conflicts better. One way to make relationships with difficult personalities easier is by establishing good relationships proactively. The idea is to get off on the right foot. And let’s be honest – if you can fend off a genuine conflict with this type of person early on, you can save yourself from several future headaches.
The pathway to a proactive approach to handling difficult people is good communication. It all boils down to communicating professionally and effectively. Remember, this all starts with building trust and establishing a solid working relationship. That way, when conflicts arise with a “difficult” person, you are better poised to handle them.
Help Improve Relationships With Difficult Personalities With Questions
If things are becoming rocky with someone with a problematic personality or their behavior is not-so-collaborative, you should ask yourself some questions. These questions could help you understand them better.
- Do they feel underappreciated?
- Are they unwilling to take accountability?
- Do they resist or fear change?
- Do they feel their job is more difficult now?
Once you answer these questions, you will have more empathy for their situation, which should help you deal with them. It might be a good idea to ask them questions to help you help them. For example, ask, “how could this situation be better for you?” Or “how do you suggest we approach this?”
Address Genuine Conflicts Before They Fester
The best way to overcome genuine conflicts is to deal with them head-on. However, Straeter and Conour don’t recommend doing this without preparation. It’s crucial to ensure you’re calm and collected before you address conflicts. Conour and Straeter recommend doing your homework beforehand, acting carefully, and avoiding triangles during conflict resolution.
1. Do Your Homework Before Addressing the Conflict With a Difficult Personality
Conour and Straeter suggest doing your homework thoroughly before meeting to resolve a problem. It can be emotional, so give yourself enough time to cool down before starting. And make sure you get it all down on paper first. First, identify the potential or perceived issues. Then look back on what actually happened. Think about the questions you want to ask and the points you want to make. Remember, these points and questions are not about making yourself feel better or getting even. The intention should be to solve the problem.
Next, evaluate the issues, your expectations, and what you think their expectations will be. Contemplate which conflict management style you should adopt to best work with the one you think they will use. What emotions are involved? Try to keep past emotions out of the equation.
Lastly, ask yourself, does this person perceive me as the problem or a roadblock? How will you handle it? Getting this down on paper will help you make more sense of your thoughts and feelings on the subject. Straeter and Conour recommend using what you have written as a reference during the conversation. That way, you won’t miss any crucial points. Also, if you get emotional, you can turn to your notes to help you stay on track.
2. When Addressing the Conflict, Take Action Carefully
After you finish doing the homework, it’s time to confront the complicated person directly. First, Conour and Straeter adamantly discourage action if the other person is showing signs of anger. When someone is angry, rational behavior will be unsuccessful in getting through to them. So, if no one is angry, it’s safe to proceed. Remember to be patient and demonstrate compassion, forgiveness, and compromise; for them and yourself. Follow the advice below, and you’re sure to succeed.
- Recognize if and when someone or something is pushing your emotional buttons
- Understand the pattern of their action that provokes this response in you
- Develop and rehearse alternative actions to manage your feelings and stay on the task
- Set expectations of acceptable behavior
- Break the negative pattern by showing up with coffee or a smile
Stand up for yourself, and no, this doesn’t mean literally standing up. It means once you reach an acceptable emotional climate and anger has dissipated, you should confidently and calmly defend yourself. Let the other person know through your body language, careful words, and overall attitude that you’re serious about solving the problem. Not to fight or be trampled. Talk straight. Be short, clear, and get to the point. Cover what the issue is and what you want. That’s it. Don’t confuse talking straight with being rude; you still should use kind words and thoughtful body language. Don’t play the blame game. Just be straightforward.
Also, remember to listen. After your turn to share, stop and listen to the other person’s response. Then, clarify and summarize. Listening patiently and recapping are the most beneficial tools in your kit. They let the other person know you’re invested in their interests too.
3. When Handling a Difficult Personality, Always Avoid Triangles
Creating a triangle in conflict resolution is when you rope in a third person to confront the person you have a conflict with instead of addressing them yourself. For example, if Johnny has a problem with Sally–Johnny should address Sally. If Johny adopts the triangle conflict resolution strategy, he will bring the issue to a third person, asking them to confront sally for him. See the difference? Conour and Straeter warn against adopting the triangle style at all costs!
If someone asks you to get involved in their conflict, don’t. Instead, discuss potential solutions with them. Maybe ask them if they have any suggestions for a solution. Or offer one of your suggestions to help get the ball rolling. If you’re their manager, you can offer to facilitate the conversation between the two people but don’t speak on behalf of the other person. That’s getting involved in a triangle, and it’s never a good idea.
What to Do When Someone With a Difficult Personality Just Won’t Budge on an Issue
So, what if you used all these tools, did your homework, and practiced patience, compassion, and kindness? But if the conflict still stares you in the face, then what? Sometimes the best thing you can do is: stop.
Straeter and Conour say if this happens, take a breather. Pause, and walk away from the issue. Reevaluate the behaviors and the personality traits you are dealing with. Then, look at yourself. Take a moment and listen to your intuition, the quiet voice inside your head. Ask yourself: do I need to adjust my approach? Do I need to stop trying to resolve this conflict today and start later? There’s nothing wrong with agreeing to take a break and tackling the solution later. Sometimes a pause will allow both parties to calm down and concede later.
After doing everything possible on your end–self-reflection, switching your approach, taking multiple breaks–things should start to improve. You should be able to come to some type of conflict resolution if you’re diligent. But there are exceptions. Sometimes no matter what you do, you simply can’t resolve the problem. If you’re at the point where there seems to be no possible solution, and neither person is happy, Straeter and Conour still have some advice for you.
They encourage you not to avoid the other person. Be as polite and respectful as possible. Don’t go around complaining about the interaction or the person to everybody. Try seeking an objective confidante, mentor, or colleague for impartial advice. They might be able to help you see the ways you’re contributing to the conflict that you might not have realized. If you’re still having problems, consider a third-party mediator. Getting HR or management involved might help. But you should refrain from using this step until you have tried everything else.
Of course, if all else fails and you’re still having issues, you have to ask yourself, is it beyond all possibility to continue working with this person? You might have to look for a new position or change your arrangements with your current role. However, if things get to this point, it’s definitely not a win-win situation. But hopefully, you can move on and learn from the experience. Remember, resolving conflicts with difficult people takes practice. Be patient with the process.
Evaluate the Success of Your Solutions
After you go through all the work to come to a solution, it’s imperative to evaluate it. How can this be done? Straeter and Conour recommend measuring a conflict solution based on how much satisfaction each party has after it. They also recommend defining how to measure it with the other person. For example, ask them, “how can we measure that we both got what we wanted from this solution?”
Then, follow up. Check back to ensure all parties understand the solution, accept the new procedure, agree on what it will look like if it’s successful, and are clear about what it will look like going forward.
Trust the Process and Stay Positive
Remember, expert problem-solving skills don’t materialize overnight. You have to work on them. And practice doesn’t make perfect. But it can help you improve your conflict management skills over time. Be patient with yourself as you embark on developing better problem-solving skills.