If you’ve been in leadership long enough, you’ve witnessed difficult personalities within every level of the organization, from the C-suite to the employee, and from the boardroom to the classroom.
Sometimes the most difficult people are brilliant, talented, well-connected and resourceful, yet working with them is energy-draining. At first it seems that the problem is personality, temperament or positional power. The tendency is to cope using aggression, avoidance or appeasing.
The real problem is how we mismanage conflict by resisting it. Resistance slows us down, yet we all resist. We resist looking honestly at what’s required of us in a difficult situation. We resist initiating an honest conversation that could promote understanding. We resist our own growth when we use aggression to even the score or appeasing to keep the peace.
There’s another way to see difficult situations and people — as opportunities to strengthen conflict capacity. The key is to identify resistance and use the three levels of resistance as “resistance training” to become a more competent leader.
Level 1: Your Resistance
Notice your own resistance to high-conflict situations and individuals. If you avoid initiating a conversation with a “difficult employee,” that’s resistance. When you’re preoccupied by a wrong-doing and waste time retelling the story, that’s resistance. When you appease an opinionated board member but secretly resent their stubbornness, that’s resistance. Resistance is the non-acceptance of reality and the inability to see your choices.
What to do: Notice that you’re in a state of resistance. Resistance is opposite of flow, so if you feel distracted, negative or stuck, remind yourself that you’re out of flow and in resistance.
Next, accept reality. The situation is not ideal, but accept it anyway. This doesn’t mean you give up; it means you stop complaining, blaming and wasting time on actions that magnify the problem. Accepting the current reality instead of resisting it helps you take the next right step to positive change. That change may include setting boundaries, asking for what you want or gathering more information, but at least you’re moving forward and out of resistance.
Level 2: Their Resistance
It’s easy to notice someone else’s resistance. There’s the complaining colleague who wastes hours venting about the same problem; the poor performer making excuses and blaming others; the aggressive and closed-minded executive. One-upmanship, impatience argumentativeness, bossiness, know-it-alls — it’s all resistance.
What to do: Stop judging and simply observe. Observe the amount of time that’s wasted on negativity, argument, lack of curiosity, the need to be right and downright disrespect.
Notice your emotional charge, but don’t engage in trying to change others. Instead, ask a question: “What would make this better for you?” Another question is “What do you want?” Then listen. I almost guarantee the resistant person can’t answer those questions. If they could, they would talk less and do more.
Level 3: Resisting their Resistance
Resisting their resistance is when your reactions are based on changing them or based on avoiding discomfort they represent. When you avoid a conversation because you “already know what they are going to say,” that’s resisting their resistance. The real resistance is about “hanging with” a conversation when it gets difficult.
When you appease someone even when you disagree because you don’t want them to “blow up,” you’re resisting their resistance. Maybe you’re afraid you will also blow up. When you avoid a difficult conversation with a poor performer who might cry, you’re resisting their resistance. Empathy is essential, but when you take on other people’s emotional issues, you’re resisting their resistance.
What to do: Let them say what you already know they’re going to say. Let them do what they will. It’s OK to let them cry. Let them be exactly who they are without desiring to change them.
Remember this: People do what they do because it works for them on some level. When you stop overcompensating, you change the game. When you stop caring more than they do, you challenge them to step up. When you accept them and stop judging them, they open up.
Even competent leaders get nervous dealing with aggressive or disagreeable people, yet leadership requires the ability to manage conflict. To change dysfunctional patterns, you have to change the conversation. To get back in the flow, release resistance, and recognize high-conflict situations and difficult personalities as an opportunity to grow in conflict capacity.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book “From Conflict to Courage” (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, or at MarleneChism.com