Dealing with difficult people

by Derek Clouthier

EDMONTON, Alta. — You may not come across a situation where you have to negotiate a hostage situation in the workplace, but for Gary McDougall, it’s just one aspect of his expertise when it comes to dealing with difficult people, both in life and at work.

The Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) held its first Safety Conference and Trade Show of 2017 in Edmonton March 31, and McDougall kicked off an impressive list of presenters who addressed an array of issues facing the trucking industry.

McDougall, a retired police officer whose specialization is in the area of personnel development and communication, and is now the facilitator for Conflict Solutions, said when it comes to dealing with difficult people in the workplace, perception is a theme to keep in mind.

“The reality is that we perceive that we are doing things right, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” McDougall explained, saying that multiple people can look at the same piece of data and perceive it in several different ways.

McDougall highlighted three components of every human interaction: issue, position and interests.

The issue is the general basis for the conversation, while position is the stance each person involved in the interaction takes on the issue at hand, and this is what can potentially lead to a conflict.

“People who are very positional are very opinionated,” said McDougall, adding that a person’s position can make them oppositional. “Let’s not have positional conversations.”

Interests, however, is where people can avoid getting into a conflict during an interaction, as these are the reasons behind a person’s position and why they hold the opinion they do on a particular issue.

McDougall said if people take the time to understand another’s interests and why they are taking the stance they are, several conflicts can be avoided, and a better understanding can be the result, which is the reason he feels asking “why?” and being mindful of your tone is so important.

“Your professionalism is your power,” McDougall said, underscoring how a person’s tone during a conversation can be the difference between it heading toward a resolution or a conflict.

McDougall said there is professional language and natural language, professional leading to positive outcomes or voluntary compliance, and natural – what a person really wants to say to someone they are in conflict with – leading somewhere very different.

There are also three levels of conversation – information, emotional and identity – of which, identity can lead to a conflict, as they express a person’s opinion and can attack another’s identity by questioning their values, lifestyle or choices.

When dealing with difficult people in the workplace, McDougall said the more problematic it becomes, the more professional a person should become. Holding an appropriate face and tone is also keys to being professional.

“It’s not exactly what they said to me, it’s how they said it,” McDougall said, quoting the famous phrase that addresses tone.

Another tip McDougall bestowed upon those in attendance at the safety conference was to avoid becoming angry during a conflict, as anger tends to get people into trouble and can lead to defensive and reactive behavior.

“We don’t get angry primarily, we get angry secondarily,” McDougall said, adding that the primary emotions that lead to anger are frustration, embarrassment, fear and vulnerability. “When we get angry, when someone lights our fuse, we stop listening.”

During a conflict in the workplace or elsewhere, McDougall said we should always try to acknowledge the other person’s point, as this type of acknowledgement is one of the most basic human needs.

To be an effective communicator in the workplace, McDougall said conversations need to be 50/50, also called an inquiry conversation rather than an advocacy conversation, where one person simply tries to relay their side of the story in an effort to change the other’s view.

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