Executive Insider

How to manage precious and difficult people

Michelle Gibbings

We all have people in our personal and professional life who we find challenging. We may label them as ‘precious’, ‘difficult’ or ‘hard work’.  The typical approach to managing people such as this is to try to avoid them or find a way to work around them.

This may work as a short-term approach, but as a long-term strategy, it’s ineffective. Instead, you should seek to spend more time with them.

When you spend more time with a person, you have the opportunity to understand better their perspectives and what motivates and drives their behaviour.

This approach takes the advice of Stephen Covey, the author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

We all interpret the world and what is happening through the lens of our own experience.  Consequently, it’s very easy to misinterpret a person’s intent or think we know what they are thinking or why they are behaving in a certain way.

By seeking to understand, we suspend judgement and drop the labels by being curious, open-minded, and interested in them. All of which puts us in a far better position to cultivate a healthy relationship.

Listen first; talk later

People want to feel they have been heard and their needs listened to.  When they don’t, they’ll either take one of two ends of the spectrum – withdraw from the conversation or find ways to destabilise or aggravate it.

In contrast, when a person feels heard, they feel valued and that they matter to you.  This is because they think that their point of view has been considered and that you are interested in what they have to say.

Listening effectively is about being genuinely interested as to what is being said and not said.  You seek to understand what the other person needs, so you listen with empathy and compassion.

This means you ask questions and seek to clarify what you’ve heard before sharing your ideas or providing a solution.   By doing this, you acknowledge how they feel and take the time to recognise what they need.

Challenge your reaction

When you feel frustrated or annoyed by the actions of others, it’s essential to challenge your immediate response.

A reactive response is usually not done from the wisest mindset and potentially harms your health, relationships and leadership brand.

A considered response is one where you are naturally curious about what is happening, what may be triggering a reaction and why you are feeling or wanting to react in a certain way.

This approach isn’t about ignoring how you feel.  Instead, it’s about making sense of your feelings and acknowledging them.  It’s accepting that, in many cases, the cause of the frustration is less important than the meaning you place on it and what you choose to do about it.

Once you have this understanding, you are better placed to know how to respond and what action to take.

So next time you come across a person at work or in your personal life who you find difficult or precious, ask yourself:

  • Why am I feeling like this?
  • Why does it matter to me?
  • What meaning am I giving to this situation?
  • What else could it mean?
  • What would a wise response be?

As you answer those questions and work through the best approach, you’ll learn more about yourself and the other person.

This approach doesn’t mean you step away from your values and that you don’t stand up for yourself and what you believe. It does mean, however, that you are open to the perspectives of others and recognise that you don’t hold the licence on being right.

When you stop reacting and take the time to ponder, reflect and respond, you will find more meaning, deeper relationships and better outcomes.


Written by Michelle Gibbings.
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Michelle Gibbings
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the author of three books, including her latest 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'.


Michelle Gibbings is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.