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Dealing with Difficult People


Last updated 7/17/2014

If you’re a manager dealing with a difficult employee, you have three choices:
  1. You can do nothing and hope things will get better (not a sign of great leadership).
  2. You can hope the difficult person will see the light and vow to change his attitude and behavior (my advice: don’t count on it!).
  3. You can take the lead and take action to improve the situation (good move: astute managers know that creating a more harmonious, and so more productive, work environment is part of their job description).

The Four Communication Styles and How to Approach Each
Researchers have found that each of us falls into one of four major behavioral functions: Controller, Analyzer, Supporter, or Promoter. Once you’ve identified a person’s style you can adopt a communication strategy that will reach him or her most effectively. Not surprisingly, individuals tend to get along better with those whose communication style is similar to their own and have a harder time communicating with and relating to someone whose style is in direct contrast to their own. If executives learn how to identify their own and others’ communication styles, they become better equipped to gain people’s trust and forge a good working relationship with them.

Controller. The controller is a doer. He leads others and is often the driving force within an organization. He is characterized by an emphasis on action and results. He is like the alpha dog who must lead the pack. Because he places high standards on himself and others, he is likely to be seen as constructively impatient and a tireless worker.

When communicating or working with the typical controller, be prepared to move fast and to be tested. Expect the controller to argue, interrupt, disagree, raise his voice, and challenge your thoughts. Keep in mind that this behavior is not an attack on you. It isn’t personal; it is just the way he or she is.

Based on my communications style testing, eighty-five percent of all technical professionals—architects, engineers, lawyers, and accountants—are either "controllers" or "analyzers."

Analyzer. This type is characterized by analysis, details, logic, and systematic inquiry, and may appear a bit stiff. He functions in a steady, tenacious manner, finding great satisfaction in identifying a problem, weighing options carefully, and testing them to determine the best possible solution. The analyzer is of great value as a logical thinker who provides objectivity to a complex problem. He won’t be the life of the party, but he will show up on time!

When working with analyzers, be well organized, have details lined up, and plan each meeting carefully. Speak slowly, as he processes information more carefully than most. Pause often and ask questions to make sure you are both on the same page of your topic of discussion. One of the surest means to create a communication barrier with the analyzer is to generalize. Remember: think specifics when communicating with the analyzer.

Supporter. Above all, the supporter is concerned with people. He is often sought out for his ability to empathize and for his patience with others during a time of crisis. An understanding listener, he can identify change in ways that reduce conflict and increase the likelihood of cooperation and teamwork. A weakness among supporters is their tendency to become emotional, which may be viewed as a substitution for taking action. Of the four personality types, the supporter is the most likely to retreat in a time of conflict.

The best way to communicate with the supporter is through an informal, personalized approach. Your face-to-face communications should be somewhat guarded. Maintain ample physical space between yourself and the supporter type. While you can be enthusiastic, even somewhat aggressive when communicating with the controller, the supporter will balk at any sign of aggressive communication.

Promoter. This is the “big picture” person. The promoter is seen as a leader and a visionary capable of seeing new possibilities that others do not. Her style is characterized by heavy emphasis on ideas, innovation, concepts, and long-range thinking. She is not inclined to take things for granted. The promoter will challenge you—not because she is hostile – but because she has learned the value of probing to uncover new ideas. This is a person with a strong ego who can come across as “superior” and can be condescending in her communications. She is quick thinking and a quick wit.

When communicating with the promoter, ask her lots of questions. Because so much of this individual’s ego is invested in what she does and how she does it, communicate your awareness of her ideas, plans, and most of all, her vision. Promoters love to talk about their plans. Let them have at it; sit back and absorb.

It All Begins with You

  • Look in the mirror. Before pointing fingers and seeking a solution to any perceived communications challenge, begin with a thorough self-examination. Are you certain that the source of the communications challenges or behavioral problems you experience is the other person, and not you? Can you identify a pattern in your interaction with co-workers? Are your hot buttons easily pushed? If your answer is yes, you need to deal with your own issues before seeking a resolution with others.

  • Listen and understand first. Effective listening is the first step in transforming a challenging personality into a collaborative colleague. Active, empathetic, and responsive listening occurs when we genuinely care about what the other person is trying to tell us and we actively reach out with questions, tone, voice, and body language. When people feel that they have not been heard, it only adds to their frustration and anger and adds fuel to the difficult person’s combustible personality.

When executives take the initiative to create change for the better, great things can happen. They set a positive example for others who may have similar challenges. And, by understanding individuals’ communications styles, he or she can create a more harmonious and more productive environment where team members support each other and work together to achieve organizational goals.

Communication is key while dealing with difficult people. Sign up for our webinar to learn how to solve communication problems.