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Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we talk about embracing joy in the workspace. I’m Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting. With me is my co-host and dear friend JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, an HR consulting firm. Today we’re going to talk about difficult people and negative attitudes. This topic is one that we’ve heard from lots of our listeners about, as they really want us to tackle it because they’re tackling it every day in the workplace.
As business leaders, HR professionals, consumers, citizens, volunteers, or whatever role we’re in, it’s not uncommon for us to run into people who can be unpleasant. With our goal of creating and maintaining JoyPowered® workspaces, we need to figure out viable ways to engage with people that we work with who can sometimes be angry, rude, mean, self-centered, distressful, cruel, antisocial, narcissistic, jealous – oh my gosh, this list just keeps going on – temperamental, quick to anger, unforgiving, or just about any other adjective for a person you may not want to work with.
Are we still on the JoyPowered® podcast?
Yes, we are. We’re gonna…we’re going to turn these negative attitudes into smiles. JoDee, you do exude such joy, I am hoping that people with negative attitudes avoid you, or at least they don’t try to mess with you. Do they?
Well, I don’t know if they avoid me, but I definitely avoid them. But you know, I’m not always JoyPowered®. Just ask my husband.
Ah, all right, Matt, I’m going to give you a call. I want to hear some dirt on JoDee, which I can’t even imagine exists. Well, I…as you know, I used to work in corporate America for a few decades, and I did encounter a good number of people who were not JoyPowered®. In fact, I’m going to say some people that I worked with came in to the workplace every day with kind of a negative energy and thinking about people that they wanted to take down with them. Especially when I was managing employee relations or I was in a job that had employee relations responsibilities, I would have interactions with employees at all levels – supervisors, executive leaders. By and large, you know, most people are good, and most people come to work, I believe, with the intent of doing good work, treating people right. But every now and then there would be somebody that just came in with this aura of “I don’t want to be here and I’m gonna make this as unpleasant on you as it is for me.” So now that I’m an HR consultant, it’s really rare that I spend a lot of time with somebody who’s negative, because I’m in and out of most businesses pretty quickly, and the people who bring me in that I’m working with generally are paying money for me to be there, so they want me there.
But there are times, even in consulting, that I’ll be doing a comprehensive project or maybe an internal investigation for a company and I run into a difficult person who has the potential of making my assignment unenjoyable. So I know that I can get better at dealing with people like this, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. What are some practical, tactical ways that we can get better at dealing with people with negative ‘tudes?
Yeah, I think we can all use some help in this area, so I love the topic.
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We look forward to hearing from you.
Well, in our research, we found an article on Psychology Today published by Barbara Markway, who’s a PhD, and her article was titled “20 Expert Tactics for Dealing with Difficult People.” It appeared in March 2015 of Psychology Today. Barbara’s ideas I think are relevant today, and I think worth the two of us talking through them and adding on, maybe, some tips that you and I have from…from our experience. So let’s start with number one.
Number one is to listen. The person needs to know that they are heard. Right? I think this is really powerful and always a good reminder for me to practice active listening, to ask questions, to nod your head, to let them know that you are…they’re being heard.
Ever run a meeting, JoDee, where there’s somebody in the room who has a contrary opinion…which actually is a good thing. I mean, you have a meeting, you bring people together, because you want people to have dialogue and talk through whatever potential issues or problems are there before a decisions in a rendered. But you have a negative person in that meeting who brings something up, and you see the facilitator just kind of, like, nod and keep moving. They just keep on going and then that person who has a contrary opinion, they don’t don’t think they’re being heard and will get louder and louder, and sometimes the language gets worse and worse. So I think it’s just a really good technique to, when there’s somebody who is negative or is giving you some kind of an opposite opinion, you need to stop and acknowledge it. Right? Let’s say “I hear you, I do have more things I want to present, which I think is going to address your issues, can we continue,” or say, “you know what, that’s not really the topic we’re going to talk about today, let’s put it on a…on a parking lot,” whatever. But make sure that person knows they were heard. Otherwise, they’re going to be fighting more about being heard than they are necessarily about the issue.
Right. I love it.
Well, her second piece of advice for us, which…this is always easier said than done. Number two is stay calm. Do not take the bait. When there’s somebody negative and something negative happens, you don’t want to rise to that person’s level. In fact, a technique that I learned when someone is really angry and they’re coming at you and they’re talking very loudly, lower your voice. By your going down a decibel or two, it does help that other person realize that you’re not jumping up and you’re not…it’s not going to be a shouting match. And they have to lean a little bit closer really to listen because you’re talking at a softer volume. So I think that is not a bad technique. In her article, Barbara mentions that maybe you want to stay calm, concentrate on your breathing. So if you can stop and think, okay, breathe in, breathe out, kind of thinking about zen and getting grounded, rather than jumping and reacting. Concentrate on breathing in, breathing out before you react.
Yeah. I think all 20 of these items are important. But the one that really hits home with me the most is to not judge. Because we don’t always know what the other person is going through. They might, you know, have an ill parent or an ill child or spouse or have been in a car accident or been fired from a previous job or whatever, going through a difficult financial time. So I think we have to be really careful about judging them overall as a negative or drowning person. Maybe they’re having a difficult day today. And going back to step number one and listening to them and allowing them to be heard, whatever their situation might be, can really help to build relationships and build trust between the two of you.
Right, you’re absolutely right. Number four, reflect respect and dignity toward the other person. If you show contempt, you will never de-escalate the situation. And I know that’s hard, especially when someone is really negative and they’re coming at you with a whole different set of beliefs and perspective. But if you react with contempt or anger, it’s never going to get to a point where you can really talk. So I love that number four.
Yeah. Number five, look for the hidden need. What is it that they want or hope to avoid by being difficult with you? And really, what’s in it for them? And sometimes just asking that question…maybe not what’s in it for you, but asking a question – you know, what’s your goal here, what are…what are you hoping to accomplish – can really cut to the chase and maybe resolve the situation if what they want is something you can provide to them.
Number six, look for others around who may be able to help. So it’s really pulling in a reinforcement if you sense it’s going to help the cause. Or if…certainly, if you feel unsafe, look around, figure out your exit strategy. But sometimes it’s someone believes something, you believe something else. Is there somebody else who could help mediate this or help bring more facts to bear?
Yeah. Number seven, don’t demand compliance. Telling people to calm down or do anything when they’re upset is counterproductive. Better to just let them vent.
I have seen someone say to the other individual, “now, you’re going to have to calm down,” and that just caused the person to explode.
So try to eradicate those words. You’re not going to be able to tell someone how to feel, so let it go. Right?
Number eight, saying “I understand” can make things worse. It’s better to say “tell me more so I can better understand.” I think that when you say “I understand, I understand,” sometimes people feel like you’re pacifying them or you’re just trying to shut them up. So, you know, rephrasing it, “okay, so tell me more so I can understand,” I think is a much more genuine, authentic reach out to the individual.
I love that one. Number nine, avoid smiling or even joking, as that might make things worse. What might be a very serious situation for them, you might appear as if you’re just passing it off or not taking it seriously.
That’s got to be a hard one for you, JoDee, because you are a natural smiler. You are. The joking part I absolutely get. People are thinking you’re…you’re making light of something that should not be made light of.
Number 10, don’t act defensively. Rarely is it about you. It’s about something that has got the person upset. That’s tough, when someone comes to you, let’s say you’re the supervisor or you’re the HR person and someone comes in, they’re angry about something. If you were part of the policymaking body, or if you were part of a decision, it’s really easy to think, “wait a minute, I did that for good reason.” Don’t go there. It…rarely is it about you. They’re upset about something, and if you don’t jump in there and act like you own it…come from a place of trying to understand more, as opposed to defending.
Yeah. Number 11, don’t return anger with anger. Right? That only is going to escalate the situation, as well. Refer back to suggestion number two, which is stay calm.
Number 12, don’t argue or try to convince the other person. I think that just builds on what you just said, you know, don’t return anger with anger. Always start with that listening, and in the calm, later, is when you have a chance to sit down and really negotiate an outcome.
Yeah. Number 13, keep extra space between you and the person. Right? I mean, if this gets heated, it could go down quickly. So stay back.
Number 14, saying “I’m sorry,” or “I’m going to try to fix this,” goes a long way.
Yeah. Number 15, set limits and boundaries. If the person is threatening or crosses your line of civility, this may not be the time or the place for this discussion. And that can be difficult, right? Because they may want to resolve that right now, but it might not be appropriate for you to do so. I’ve been in two situations in my career where I…I was really afraid. I was afraid there might be a physical reaction. And I knew, even, in both times that the person really wasn’t angry at me. They were just so angry at the situation. So it’s pretty scary.
Yeah, I hate that for you. Number 16 is trust your instincts. If a discussion is going downhill fast, execute an exit strategy. So I guess in those two situations that you just mentioned, JoDee, your instincts were telling you this may not be safe. That’s the time to shut it down. When I’ve been in very emotional conversations with somebody who’s not happy, every time I say we’ve got to reconvene on this, I think you need to take a few moments, I need to take a few moments or maybe I need to take overnight, who knows, I always feel like the quality of our discussion is better when we reconvene. The person has a chance to, you know, walk it off, get something to drink, I get a chance to do the same. And trust your instincts. Don’t stay if you don’t feel like it’s going to end up in a positive place.
Right. Number 17, one response doesn’t fit all. So we don’t have a magic answer or a magic statement for you to say that will fit every situation. So try and stay flexible. And, you know, along with some of our other advice – be calm, be understanding, listening.
I think sometimes you want to say, “hey, that’s the policy.” And maybe there is a policy, but maybe we need to sit down and talk about why this policy isn’t working in this specific situation. So I think that’s something to consider. Number 18, debrief with a trusted advisor afterwards. So if you have an emotionally charged interaction with somebody who’s really negative or upset, you can learn from it. I mean, we all can learn from every interaction, but we really encourage you, as…as…as does the article, to talk to your boss about it later. Talk to your trusted colleague, just about, is there anything I could have done differently that maybe would have kept it from going, you know, as…as angry as it did, or anything that worked really well that I can maybe apply to future situations. I think debrief these types of learning, coaching opportunities for yourself.
Yeah. I like this next one, number 19, that says to discharge your own stress. Right? We can be, maybe, calm in the moment with that person, but then walk away and sort of want to vent or…or be stressed ourselves. So think about going for a walk, playing with your dog, listening to music, whatever…whatever works for you to have that self-care for your own emotions.
And number 20, her final suggestion, is give yourself credit for dealing with a difficult person or a situation. You know, celebrate it. When you debrief it, figure out what can I learn from it, what can I apply in the future, but you know what, kudos to yourself. Because you’re building that muscle of being able to deal with difficult situations, and you’re going to get better, you’re going to get stronger because of it. So take time to say thanks to yourself.
Yeah, good one.
So, you know, these were her ideas. I thought it was a great article. But there’s a few other things, I think, JoDee, that you and I might want to add, just from our experiences. I loved your first thing we said, is that you try to avoid people negative people. Don’t invite that stress into your life. I think that’s a really good one. Think about it. I mean, especially over time, if you do not have to be directly involved with somebody who you know is negative, do what you need to do, but don’t be poking that bear.
Yeah, yeah. I do wonder about that, as I, you know, laughed about that earlier, I was rethinking, what if that person is your employee or someone in your department? Then, you know, it may be time to create a conversation with that person, to listen and ask questions, to find out what…what else might be going on with them.
I agree. And certainly in a situation like that, which you cannot avoid, I think it’s important to really unpack what’s going on in your relationship, how do we rebuild so that we function better, and maybe they don’t realize the impact that they’re having on your enjoyment of dealing with them. And maybe you can…maybe it’ll never be perfect, but it can be better. So, good point.
There’s also the old adage, “people will treat you as you allow them to.” Think about that one for a minute. “…as you allow them to.” So are we…are people coming to us as negative and angry and we allow them to continue that behavior? Or do we need to, as you said, unpack that behavior and have a conversation around it?
Yeah, there’s a mantra that I try to remind myself to this day when I deal with somebody who is negative, and it might be someone at a store, might be when I call a customer service area and I realize that they’re not very nice. The mantra I repeat to myself is “hurt people hurt people.” And so the fact is, that person is hurting over something. In our article that we talked about, you know, someone’s…they may have baggage they’re carrying that we don’t know. So try to be kind. Well, when that person is not being kind to me, I think, somehow this person has been hurt, maybe, in the past or by people in a similar role that I’m in, or just today, something’s not going right with them. So they’re hurting. Don’t respond in kind. Hurt people do hurt people.
Yeah. I love that. And also, you know, reminder that we can’t control others’ behavior. We can only control our reaction to it. So as much as we can do many of those tips, again, to de-escalate the situation and…and talk through it with the person to find out what’s going on, or what…what can we do to help them through this issue or this period in their life.
So I think just to close this topic is, certainly people who have a negative attitude are difficult to deal with. There’s a lot of things that we can try doing. But sometimes they come in with a negative attitude, or they’re very difficult, but it crosses into bad behaviors that are not good for our business, that are not good for our fellow employees, they’re not good for our customers. And as business leaders, as HR people, when we have have the negative folks actually doing bad things, you got to take action, right? We’ve talked about this a lot in a lot of other podcasts, that we can’t keep them and keep tolerating it, you have to draw the line. We believe in progressive corrective action. If someone’s done something wrong, you need to coach and tell them. And if they do it again, then you let them know that their job’s in jeopardy and you may need to ask them not to work for you, you might need to quit them for the sake of the organization. Hope it doesn’t get there. Hopefully, through the things we’ve talked about today, you can help negative people start to operate and behave better in the workplace.
Right. Absolutely. Our listener question today comes from a listener who completed one of our SHRM credit eligible episodes’ evaluation forms. Their question is, “Could you give advice on starting a mentoring program within a large organization that is aimed at growing diverse employees into leadership roles?”
Yes, I love that question. First of all, I really do believe that mentoring programs is such a great way to do knowledge transfer, to help more junior people really grow in confidence and…and competence. And I think that doing it with a lens of increasing diversity is, like, a win-win. An organization I worked for, we recognized that we had a really good, we thought, career development program, we felt like we had a lot of opportunities that existed. But we were not doing a very good job at elevating females into some historically male-dominated roles and people of color going into roles where we had had primarily white individuals being elevated. So we were just not doing a good job. And we had a million reasons why. We weren’t having the same number of diverse people applying for jobs, we had people who started the jobs, it didn’t work out, that cause kind of a feeling among the decision makers that maybe it was too high risk, there was a whole bunch of reasons, but really, they were…turned out to be excuses. So what we decided to do was to start kind of a mentoring program with high potential individuals that had all different unique qualities. So not only gender, more gender balanced, a lot of females into it, people of color, we had people of all different ages so that people didn’t feel like you had to be, you know, in your 20s or 30s, to be considered high potential or moving to the next level, we worked hard on having people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. So we just really tried to look at it much more broadly. And we put together what I think is a really nice format for mentoring, which is you need to have structure around it. In some organizations, they say, let’s just let people…tell people we believe in mentoring, and then let people do…organically, naturally match up with one another. You know, that works once in a great while, but I don’t think it works uniformly. I think you need structure. So in our organization, we had our training manager take on the duty of putting together this format. We said we’re going to have this mentoring, executive mentoring go on for six months at a time, we pulled together a group of our high potential people and we invited them if they’d like to participate, we pulled together our first…our top two levels of the organization to say, if you would like to participate, we made sure they understood, we put together a very quick job descriptions so they understood what it meant. In the next six months, you need to meet with your person, X number of times, here’s what the objectives are and here’s what it means to have a good relationship. And then we pulled together the two groups, we did a series of networking events where people got to know each other, and then we met with each on each side. Who would you…what are the top two or three you’d like to meet with, so on and so forth. As we did kind of, like, I guess if a sports analogy, we’d do…is it a draw, or…what…I shouldn’t bring up a sports analogy when I know so little about sports. But they were able to say their top two or three picks on each side and then we matched them up. To wrap up on mentoring, what I think’s important to think about is having a structure, having a facilitator who makes sure that not only the mentees, but the mentors, do what they say they’re going to do. And then don’t make it forever. Make it, like, for the next six months, or if you want to do for the next year, but have a start and a stop. Because if you don’t, I’ll tell you it will fizzle out over time and people will leave questions, wondering “why doesn’t he call me anymore?” “Why…is she still interested?”. Have a little structure around it, have a facilitator, and I think you can get great results – and I know it did for us – at really positioning and readying people from non-traditional backgrounds into more senior-level roles.
I love it. I…one more thing about, I think, the importance of having a start and stop date on it, is that, too, sometimes it’s not the best matchup. Right? And that gives you a chance to to say “I want to stay involved in the program, but I’m…I’m ready for a new mentor,” too, so our people don’t feel like they, maybe, are stuck with someone for the rest of their career.
Good point. Very good point. Alright, so in the news, HRdive.com published an article on October 13, 2020, entitled “DOL…” – Department of Labor – “…Questions Whether Microsoft and Wells Fargo’s D&I…” – diversity and inclusion – “…Efforts Violate Title VII.” So it’s the OFCCP, or the Office of Federal Contract Compliance area of the Department of Labor, that sent letters of inquiry to at least two…at least these two major employers who have been vocal about pledging to increase diversity and inclusion. Microsoft had been very vocal about pledging the summer of 2020 to double the number of Black and African American contributors, managers, and executives in the United States workforce by 2025, and Microsoft planned to invest $150 million over the next five years on its diversity and inclusion programs. Wells Fargo recently committed to doubling its number of Black leaders by 2025, and that diversity efforts would be a factor in executive compensation. That way they thought that we’re going to hold our leaders accountable by, if they’re not doing a good job on the diversity front, it was going to hit their bonus or paychecks. And the OFCCP, who monitors government contractors’ and subcontractors’ affirmative action efforts, is now challenging at least these two huge employers, because they think they may possibly be engaging in unlawful discrimination on the basis of race. It’s kind of a reverse discrimination, as these actions, on the surface, appear to be attempting to right past injustices and current underrepresentation. I’ll tell you, I think that this is going to be a story that we’re going to want to watch, JoDee, however it turns out, because it’s going to have implications for all employers and the consulting work that we do as we try to help companies create more diverse workforces at all of their levels in their organizations.
Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Thank you for joining us today, and make it a JoyPowered® day. Thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast. If you like the show, please tell your friends about it. And let us know what you think of our podcast by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. It helps new people find our show. The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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