Phil Gould interviews Alex Gould about a training course he ran for a group of senior managers who struggled to handle a managing director they found difficult to deal with. The managing director would become difficult to deal with when he became frustrated and demanding when things didn't go smoothly. During the conversation they discuss why dealing with difficult or demanding people is so challenging, and how the training enabled the team to learn how to handle their boss more successfully. This is a practical discussion with concrete examples, and tips about how to deal with difficult people.
Alex: Hello, today we’re going to be talking about how to deal with difficult people. This is an extract from a telephone conversation I had with Phil Gould when we were discussing managing a demanding or difficult boss.
Phil: Good morning Alex.
Alex: Good morning.
Phil: What are we going to talk about this morning?
Alex: Well today’s topic is dealing with difficult people.
Phil: Okay, so have you got an example of that. We want to make this a concrete as possible don’t we.
Alex: Yes, I do have an example. I remember I was invited to run this training course for a group of senior directors in a construction company, and one of the things they were struggling with the most was managing upwards successfully.
Phil: How was that? What was the situation?
Alex: Well every month they would have review meetings, and the managing director would get very hot under the collar about problems and delays, because the kind of work they were doing were large commercial builds, sports stadiums and that sort of thing, and any delay would incur penalties, and the sorts of money they were talking about were extremely large, telephone number sized chunks of money and the managing director would get very upset at the thought of profits just going down the plug-hole.
Phil: I can feel the tension in the room in this situation.
Alex: Yeah, and he would shout. They described it a little bit like the hair-dryer moment, because he would turn the air blue accusing them of being incompetent and not being on top of things, and they’d find that very intimidating.
Phil: So give us a flavor of how you went about that.
Alex: Well my first step really is to get as clear a sense of what is going on in the conversation as possible by first of all asking them to describe it in detail what happens, and then to get a bit more clarity I asked them to simulate some of it. So I pretended to be this fellow, and I would lob abuse at them across the table just to get a sense about how they would handle it.
Phil: How were they handling it? What sort of things came out of that simulation?
Alex: Very often people were polarizing between one of two extremes. Because he was putting them under enormous pressure, and accusing them of not being very good some people were tempted to argue, to defend themselves, to deny they were as bad as he was making out. But of course that never worked because that made them sound argumentative. On the other hand there were some people who were completely intimidated, and they thought that the best way to placate him would be for them to be agreeable. But of course that put them in an awkward position because they were basically admitting that they weren’t managing things as effectively as they ought to be. So neither of those felt particularly great for them, and they couldn’t think of another way to do it.
Phil: Okay. That sounds very vivid. So where did you go next? What happened next?
Alex: I videoed this conversation with each of them, and played it back to them.
Phil: Ah. That must have been an interesting conversation that took place as they watched the video.
Alex: Indeed. Most of the time people cringe a little bit when they see themselves on camera for the first time, but very quickly get past that, because it’s very helpful for them to see from the other person’s point of view how they come across.
Phil: Hmm. So what were some of the things they saw?
Alex: They found the videos pretty enlightening. As a matter of fact quite of a lot of what they are doing is pretty good. I mean, when faced with a rude, abusive, insulting, patronizing tirade they don’t rise to the bate and match the other person’s aggression getting angry back … so they don’t get into a slagging match or come to blows over it. What they did do was start saying things like, “Yes, but …” in response being accused of not doing their jobs properly, and once that started the conversation began to degenerate into what sounded like an argument. What they found particularly frustrating is that they could see for themselves … the more defensive they became, the less confidence they inspired.
Phil: So they began to recognize when they were beginning to behave in a way which was making for more argument and conflict with the boss.
Alex: Yes that’s right. And that then presented an opportunity for me to introduce to them this concept of emotional intelligence, and this idea that part of the reason this conversation isn’t going as smoothly as they hoped that it might is because the other person, the person they’re talking to isn’t yet in a receptive enough frame of mind to be able to absorb the things that they’re offering him.
Phil: How did your explanation of that go down with this group?
Alex: Pretty well. They could see the sense of it very quickly, and understood it very easily. They began to imagine themselves in the other person’s role, and started to see the conversation from his point of view.
Phil: So it was a sort of light-bulb moment was it, in that way?
Alex: Yes. They really hadn’t thought about conversations in this sort of way before. It’s actually pretty typical of the engineers, scientists and technical people who seem particularly drawn to our course. They were much more used to approaching conflicts with difficult people by trying to persuade using graphs, data, facts and logic. They were used to getting their way by insisting they were right, and shear force of will, and in many cases turning up the volume. With pretty mixed results I should add. So the idea of the need to slow down, and to think about what kind of mood, what kind of mental state is the person they’re talking to might be in, and whether they are really receptive to what they’re wanting to give to them at this moment, was brand new to them.
Phil: So give us an idea of what this was getting them to. What was the end point that you were beginning to ease them towards here?
Alex: The idea that before they say their piece, before they defend themselves, before they say what they’re planning to do, what they really need to do is to pay attention to and take care of where the other person is at. In this case the managing director, and they need to be able to empathize with him.
Phil: Can you put some flesh on the bones of that? What does that actually mean? What do you say to do that? What were you getting them to say to him instead of saying, “Yes, but …” and arguing?
Alex: Yeah, good question. What I taught them to do was to say things like;-
Phil: If I was him, and I heard somebody say something like that to me I don’t think I’d be able to help myself saying something like, “Too bloody right”.
Alex: Absolutely, and then they pursue that and they do more of it.
Phil: So how is that working? If a person says, “Too damn right” aren’t they getting even more entrenched?
Alex: It’s counter intuitive isn’t it? Because if they’re agree with that actually they’re in the process of letting off steam, which helps, because something shifts in their mind and they become a bit freer. Not immediately obviously, but a period of half a minute or so something chemical changes.
Phil: So what you’re saying is if you can say something that enables a person to let off steam, a shift already begins to happen in their mind. They become just a little bit more relaxed, a little bit less uptight, and a little bit more able to cooperate.
Alex: Exactly, and in order to facilitate that the empathy might need to be done more than once. In fact it’s pretty unlikely that just one go at it is going to have that magical effect. But doing it two or three times, and being able to be patient, and not being in a hurry … one of the things I was teaching people to do was to slow down.
Phil: If you think of the context of this. This is people working in the construction industry. The atmosphere is pretty hard, pretty tough, it’s a pretty male dominated place. How did this go down with them? Did this make sense to them? Were they able to translate this into something they themselves could do?
Alex: Do you mean the fact that we’re talking about feelings might sound a little bit feminine or a bit wet?
Phil: Yes, responding with empathy in this kind of atmosphere, did that seem possible to them?
Alex: Yes absolutely. Because the way I was teaching them to do it was to sound like a newly trained counselor. I get what you mean, sometimes people are a bit concerned that it’s going to sound as if they’re inviting someone to lie on a couch and talk about their relationship with their mother when they were a child, or something like that. But the way we teach it is much harder than that. It’s much more concrete. In fact it’s possible to do it without even using the word “feeling”. People can say;-
Phil: What comes across to me from that is that they’re actually showing him respect. They’re actually taking seriously that he’s so uptight. They don’t blame him for being uptight. They’re giving him a chance to just admit it, and to accept that it’s a tough situation that he’s in … that they’re all in.
Phil: So it creates an atmosphere of understanding and mutual respect.
Alex: Indeed it does. Yes, quite. And quite quickly that shift can happen.
Phil: So what did happen with this particular group? Was there a pay off? Was there a before and afterwards.
Alex: Hang on a minute. I will get to that, but there’s another piece to this, there’s a bit more to this because so far all I’ve described is the first bit of the conversation where they were able to show their boss some empathy. Which did work, and it worked amazingly powerfully. The second piece to this is they also needed to encourage him to listen to them. They needed for him to take them seriously, and for him to realize that they were working very hard, and what it was they were doing.
Phil: Of course that’s against the background that the way he had been doing it was that he’d just been blowing off. He’d just been shouting at them.
Phil: He obviously wasn’t in a state of mind where he could possibly listen to them.
Alex: Previously anything they’d said just sounded defensive and a bit weak. Where as having successfully used empathy in the way that I taught them, to then be assertive, and again it’s very similar sort of approach. I taught then to say how they were feeling, what about and why.
Phil: For example? Could you give us an example of that? What did they need to say to him?
Alex: So for example they were practicing saying things like;-
Phil: So they were making him realize he wasn’t the only one who cared.
Phil: I suppose that was the way he was looking at it. That he was the only one. The whole risk, the whole responsibility for the business rested on his shoulders and it wasn’t really shared.
Alex: Yes, he thought that they weren’t taking it as seriously as he did. They needed to demonstrate to him that they absolutely were.
Phil: It’s interesting. It does seem quite radical. That in order to get to that point of that mutual recognition it was necessary for them to do something they weren’t used to doing at all, which was to talk about feelings.
Alex: Yes, both his and their own. And actually that’s quite a challenge because they weren’t used to thinking about that very much. So it took quite a lot of practice. It took quite a lot of time. In fact the practice is something they really rather enjoyed. There were four of them, and because they all had the same problem, when we were practicing it they took it in turns to pretend to be this fella. We happened to be the board room which was the same room they had their monthly meetings in. They found it really cathartic, they had a great hoot actually, taking it in turns pretending to be this bloke, turning the air blue with abuse, hurling these things at one another, and practicing handling one another like this. It was a very invigorating afternoon. They had a really good time getting used to this.
Phil: That sounds quite an enlivening experience for them. What sort of feedback … what happened afterwards? What was the end result of this? Did you find out?
Alex: Yes, absolutely I did. I do regular follow-ups with people as part of the training. They have a follow-up a month afterwards, and then I leave it a gap and they have another one-to-one coaching session several months after that. Prior to each of these follow-ups I had telephone calls with this managing director who had put these people on the training course. And I asked him what he’d noticed. It was really interesting because he said, “Well, I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know technique or anything like that, but I do know that these monthly meetings are over much quicker, and I’m finding that I’m having to get less irate.” What I found that was interesting is that he couldn’t put his figure on it. In fact I had to lead him. I had to suggest. I said, “I wondering whether it’s because you’re feeling understood by them more quickly and reassured by them more easily”. He thought about it for some time and said, “Well maybe that is the case”. But he couldn’t actually identify what they were doing in order to make the conversation go much smoother and the meetings to finish more quickly. That was really fascinating to me.
Phil: Okay. Thank you. That sounds a pretty good conversation. If you were to summarize that now for somebody that rang you up now and said, “What would I have to do in order to deal with somebody who’s difficult?” Do you have a quick summary in you mind about the approach that you coach people through there?
Alex: Yeah. There are really these two techniques which go hand in glove. The first thing that you need to be able to do is to show the other person that you get where they are coming from. Listening with empathy is a very powerful way to do that. You do it by saying three things;-
The trick to doing that is being able to do it with respect and compassion. If you spit it out like you’re spitting tacks, and you say, “You’re grumpy because you’re throwing your toys out of the pram because you’re over reacting”, they’re never going to feel understood. We go to great lengths in order to encourage people to do this with a generous spirit. And then the other skill, the next bit of it, one way of thinking about it is self empathy. It’s being able to articulate what’s going on in your own mind, and your own feelings, and being able to say nice and succinctly, “This is how I feel, about this thing, and for this legitimate reason here.”
Phil: How long does it take for somebody who’s not used to talking in this sort of way? I suppose most people in our culture, certainly in our business culture, and certainly in that industry are not used at all to talking in that kind of way. How long does it take to learn this stuff sufficiently well for it to actually start making a difference?
Alex: That’s quite a good question because of course we can rattle through these principles and techniques pretty very rapidly. I can explain it in a few minutes, but actually …
Phil: Yes. It’s not rocket science what you’re explaining, but I can see what the problem is the habits that we all have. A large part of this is unlearning ways of dealing with people isn’t it? I suppose the thing that takes the time and the effort is the unlearning.
Alex: Yes. I guess there are two things that people struggle with the most when they’re getting to grips with this approach. First of all it’s being able to identify their own and other people’s feelings. The second thing is being able to find a way of articulating that in a way which fits in with their natural style. In terms of time that it takes, the course is spread over several months, often it does take people quite a long time to have the confidence and courage to actually try this stuff out in real life. Usually what happens is that people are amazed that the real life conversations tend to go almost exactly the way that they went in the training room. That then spurs them on to do it again and again and again. Often people them become extremely enthusiastic and use this not only at work but in their home life as well.
Phil: Do people talk about that?
Alex: Yes. Often people go home and say that they tried it with their husband or their wife, and were amazed at how successful it was. That they managed to sidestep an awkward conversation that normally would have decended into an argument. Where as when they were to show the person they love and live with some empathy it had a remarkable effect of calming the waters. Often people say, “This matters to me too, let me explain why it’s so important”, and how the other person then melted in front of them like warm butter.
Phil: So it’s not just a skill for business. It’s not just a business skill. It’s a life skill really.
Alex: Indeed. Absolutely. It could be used in a broad variety of situations. Often people are sent on the course ostensibly because to improve a work relationship, or because they struggle in a particular kind of situation at work, but I’m very happy to entertain the idea that people might want to bring to the party and play with situations and scenario that happen outside of work, because of course these skills are so transferable. If they can crack it using these skills successful with somebody in a club, or band, or society they belong to that’s outside of work, I’m very confident that they’ll be able to apply that to their relationships in work as well.
Phil: Thank you very much Alex.