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There’s no such thing as a difficult person

This month’s blog post comes from our consultant, Mike, who explores how a subtle change can help us to realise that there’s no such thing as “difficult people”…

When was the last time you came across someone who you thought was a “difficult person”? 

Well, what if we told you there was no such thing as a “difficult person”? Instead, it could be that you’re just seeing some “difficult” behaviours. Yet, before we know it, we’ve labelled that individual as someone we can no longer work with, and the narrative has taken over… 

In teams, it’s easy to take mental shortcuts and label others as a “difficult” when we experience behaviours that may be having a negative consequence. And when we do, it doesn’t take long for emotion, confirmation bias, and storytelling to kick in and create a narrative around others, which is unlikely to even exist. Nonetheless, as soon as this happens, the person who we’ve labelled as “difficult” begins to notice that something isn’t quite right and mentally withdraws from the situation we’re in – taking all of their natural strengths with them! This tends to just exacerbate the issue at hand, and suddenly our narrative has become self-fulfilling. More negative emotion, confirmation bias, and storytelling results in us labelling the person in question as disinterested and not wanting to be part of the team. 

Whilst such mental shortcuts can have have huge advantages, helping us to navigate the world more efficiently, it is in situations like these that they can result in judgement and division. The situation blows up. And before we know it, the intent of the individual is being questioned. Yet, if we took a step back, things could be incredibly different…

Now imagine if, instead, we saw these “difficult” behaviours through a different lens. By applying some insight and trying to understand the behaviours we see, we may be able to avoid such self-fulfilling labels – and our understanding of “difficult people” may just change for the better.

In teams that have a shared understanding, instead of looking solely at the impact that behaviours have, they are also able to see the underlying intent behind the things people do. By doing so, they suddenly have a more positive view of others’ actions, helping them to work together to obtain a collective outcome.

We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour - Stephen Covey quote

To bring this to life, consider the following example. Last summer, during the height of the COVID pandemic, we were working with a team who were operating in a context of real ambiguity and uncertainty. There were clearly high levels of anxiety throughout the team due to the various changes and challenges taking place. Thus, the leader was putting pressure on themselves to get things right. Their intention was to make sure no one was left misinformed or confused as to what was going on. They wanted to achieve clarity of message. And to do this they took their time to consult with various experts, wanting to have all the correct information before communicating it to the rest of the team.

However, the unintended impact of this was that whilst the leader was sitting and waiting to get all the information they required, the rest of the team were becoming more and more anxious. As a result of not communicating, the leader was suddenly being labelled as distant and emotionally unavailable. Instead of taking the time to understand the intention, people within the team had jumped straight to judgement – and the labels generated couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

Thus, instead of jumping straight to impact, it’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when we encounter behaviours we may perceive as “difficult”. By employing a coaching framework called CIBI (Context, Intention, Behaviour, Impact), we can start to get curious about these underlying intentions. And, in turn, we may be able to work collaboratively with others to help them to see which behaviours they may need to utilise to best meet the intention they’re trying to achieve – and so build their natural adaptability.

In the example above, the sole intervention that took place was for the leader to understand that he needed to perhaps be more direct with his messaging and may need to communicate more regularly in spite of his desire to get things right. All of a sudden, the team began to understand and see the intent behind the behaviours being shown. Overnight, the labels disappeared…

Very rarely do people go out of their way to intentionally have a negative impact. So, if you find yourself questioning someone’s intent, how might you apply a lens of curiosity to the behaviour you are seeing? What context might help you to make sense of their behaviours? And how might you help them to tap into ways of being that may be more effective?

By asking ourselves these questions, we can begin to take away that sense of fixedness that comes from the labels we cast. Instead of assuming negative intent, we are more able to understand where the behaviour may be coming from. And by doing this, we reduce our risk of judgment – helping us to work together as a team to channel our energy towards achieving our collective goal.