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5 Secrets for Dealing with Difficult Customers

Everyone encounters people they find ‘difficult’ – it’s an almost unavoidable fact of life, particularly in the workplace.  As someone who teaches courses in dealing with such situations I am sometimes asked if there are a few ‘top tips’ I can give people who want to more effectively navigate such circumstances.  Here are five suggestions.

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  1. Ask yourself who is being ‘difficult’ – it can be all too easy to throw around the label of ‘difficult person’ based upon the fact that someone simply doesn’t do what we want them to do or somehow ‘makes us’ feel bad in some way.  It takes two to Tango and it may be worth stepping back and reflecting on our involvement in the situation.  Could it be that we seem just as ‘difficult’ to the other person?  Could it be that changing our own behaviour, interpretations or expectations is what is needed rather than thinking that the other person ‘should’ change?
  2. Be aware that the labels you give another person will influence how you interpret their behaviours and you could be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy or ‘vicious circle’.  If you think someone is ‘difficult’ (in whatever way) you are likely to engage in confirmatory bias – interpreting ambiguous behaviours on his or her part as evidence to prove your opinion correct.  It could well be that if you observed the same behaviours in someone you get along with you would interpret them very differently.  When you make a snap decision on what a behaviour means in someone you have mentally labeled ‘difficult’ ask yourself “What else could that mean?”  or “What would I be thinking if this had been done by someone I like?”  You might be surprised at the answer.
  3. Know what your outcomes are – any time we interact with someone we have a poor relationship with it can be very difficult to get involved in ‘blame games’ or ‘one-up-manship’.  This can easily spiral into a destructive cycle in which everyone is a loser.  By setting clear outcomes that you want to obtain – goals that are bigger and more useful for everyone than petty squabbles – you can focus on those and there is less likelihood that you will be drawn into pointless spats.
  4. Manage your own ‘state’ – when we are dealing with people we have found difficult it can be an unsettling experience.  Sometimes we become stressed, frightened, angry or in some other way disempowered.  In such a frame of mind we are likely to act more rashly, be unable to access the resources we want and misinterpret other people’s intentions.  By managing your own state you can remain centered and respond much more productively and resourcefully.
  5. Interrupt patterns – many encounters between people who find each other difficult have a patterned structure.  For example, they may take place in exactly the same place, at the same time, commence with the same opening and follow exactly the same course.  If this happens the outcomes is predictable and likely to be the same.  Think of a relationship with another person that you would like to improve and explore whether there is a pattern to the exchanges you have.  If there is, make one or two changes to it.  Meet them at a different time or place.  Open the conversation differently.  Respond with amusement or humour where you typically may have responded with anger or frustration.  By interrupting patterned behaviours we can open the way for them to evolve and transform in productive ways.

The subject of dealing with ‘difficult people’ is a large one, however if you manage to act from just one or two of the above principles you may find that your relationships with those you had found challenging transform in surprising and rewarding ways.

Watt Works are change management consultants with extensive experience in the education, banking and healthcare sectors.

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