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Regardless of where you work, it’s inevitable that you will encounter difficult people on the job. Whether it’s an employee with a bad attitude, a challenging co-worker, or a demanding boss, the odds are good that at some point, you’ll be called upon to navigate a conversation with someone you find tough to take. While it’s tempting to simply avoid the situation or person entirely, sticking your head in the sand is usually not the most effective option long-term. Difficult people and challenging situations have a way of popping back up when we ignore them. The good news? There are simple communication habits that can make a big difference when dealing with thorny on-the-job issues, and even prevent tricky situations from escalating.

As leaders and people managers, we are all responsible for modelling the kind of behaviour we want to see in our teams. These strategies can have an incredible trickle-down effect while promoting a culture of respect at work!

1. Assume positive intentions. This sounds simple, and it is. How often do we make up a story about what a difficult workmate is thinking based on their behaviour? Frequently, we make assumptions about someone else’s intentions – and more often than not, those assumptions are negative. It’s how our brains are wired! We assume the worst, so we can prepare for the worst-case scenario. But the reality is that this doesn’t always serve us. Regardless of the stories we’re making up, most people actually aren’t trying to be difficult. They just have a need that isn’t being met, and are expressing that need the way they know best. When we are able to shift our own perspective and re-frame others’ intentions in the positive, it becomes easier to cultivate empathy and work towards a solution. Shifting our assumptions allows for collaboration, and for both parties to see the other as “on their side”.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Giving basic support, respect, and acceptance to the other person, no matter what
  • Decide that they’re doing their best to meet a need, and avoid taking it personally
  • Separate the behaviour from the person

2. Provide your full attention. We all work in a quickly evolving environment where agility is key, and being “plugged in” and immediately responsive feels more important than ever. The resulting temptation to multi-task can be overwhelming, even when we’re in the middle of a conversation. With our mobile devices and smartwatches with us 24/7, we have a multitude of distractions at our fingertips. But nothing says “I’m not interested in what you’re communicating” quicker than glancing at your phone during a conversation. Too often, workplace conflicts escalate because one party (or both) doesn’t feel heard or appreciated. Providing your undivided attention can go a long ways to preventing defusing tense situations. By listening actively and paying full attention, you’re communicating respect and preventing miscommunications.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Scheduling adequate time for important conversations so you won’t be distracted
  • Avoid interrupting and put the technology aside
  • Use open body language and good eye contact

3. Don’t “pass the buck”. Mistakes happen at work, and the frustrated conversations that inevitably result can damage our relationships with colleagues.Especially when we feel someone has clearly messed up, it can be extra difficult to avoid casting blame. The truth is, no one wins as soon as we start playing “the blame game”. Blaming avoids personal responsibility, puts the other person in defense mode, and shuts down the possibility of cooperating to solve the problem. Inspiring leaders all have one thing in common – the ability to focus on the future and on constructive solutions, rather dwell on past mistakes.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Looking forward, focusing on staying constructive and respectful
  • Taking responsibility for your own part
  • Working together to come up with a plan and avoid repeating mistakes

The bottom line is that regardless of your position, organization or industry, you WILL need to navigate conversations you’d rather not have, with people you might find personally challenging. When we can prevent those situations from escalating, communication gets a whole lot smoother and our work lives become a whole lot more pleasant!

Your Engaged HR Assignment:

How’s your “communication hygiene”? We can all use with a refresher in communication best practices from time-to-time, and this quick list is a great place to start. Our challenge for you: pick one of the strategies above this week, and commit to conscientiously putting it into practice!

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