A Leadership Secret: Appreciating The Difficult People

Difficult people can be a thorn in the side of many a leader.  The author shows a process to help turn difficult people from liabilities into assets.

By Brent Filson - 2006

For decades, every summer, welcoming his scholarship players, Alabama coaching legend, Paul "Bear" Bryant, asked: "Have you called your folks to thank them?  No one ever got to this level of excellence in football without the help of others."
 
Bryant didn't just appreciate the importance of other people in the development of a young athlete; he wanted the athletes to appreciate it too.  Such appreciation is also a lesson in leadership.  Nobody becomes a successful leader unless others want you to be; you need help; and part of your growth as a leader is to recognize and show appreciation for that help. 
 
But you'll give your leadership and ultimately your career a real boost by extending your appreciation not just to the people you like and who are on your side but also to the people you may dislike: the difficult people in your life, those people who for right or wrong reasons cause you grief. 
 
One of the most effective ways of dealing with them is to appreciate them.  I mean truly appreciate them.  When you do, you may find that you are dealing with them in surprisingly productive ways. 
 
The word "appreciation" comes from a Latin root meaning "to apprehend the value."  In other words, your appreciation of difficult people must be centered on your genuine understanding of the value they offer  you and your organization.
 
You are not just understanding their point of view.  You are actually appreciating it; and you are using that appreciation as a tool to get more results, more results than if the difficult people had not entered your life. Otherwise, your appreciation, at least as far as leadership is concerned, is a waste of time.
 
Here's a four step process to make appreciation a results-generator.
 
(1) Team up.  To get appreciation rolling, know that you must be a team, you and the difficult person, in the development of it.  Mind you, you're not trying to get the difficult person to appreciate you. You have little control over the other's appreciation.  You do, however, have control over yours.  So, focus on cultivating yours.  That cultivation happens only in a relationship -- a team relationship with the other person, not necessarily a personal relationship.  In a team-relationship, you don't have to like the other person.  You simply have to work with them -- actively and wholeheartedly, irrespective of personal feelings.  And the goal of your team is to forge out of the difficulties you're having with one another a leadership process that achieves results.  
 
(2) Identify.  When you're dealing with a difficult person, you're often entangled in strong emotions.  The first thing to do is, with the person's help in a face-to-face meeting, get at the precise causes of the difficulties.  Try to remove yourself from your emotional entanglements. "Break down" what's happening the way football coaches break down the plays of opposing teams studying game films.  This breaking down is a collaborative process, and it should go like this: First, have the person describe the exact moments when you were having trouble with each other.  It's important to keep focused simply on the physical facts of those moments. What were the specific actions and words that triggered the emotions? When the person gives h/her side of the story then and only then can you give yours.  Only when both of you are clear as to those moments and agree on what took place can you start to talk with each other about your feelings connected to those moments of physical action.
 
For instance, that person may contend you are not listening to what h/she says to you.  Have the person describe the exact moment when you were not listening.  Where were you?  What was being said?  Precisely, what gave that person that impression?   
 
(3) Agree.  You and the person must agree on what is important in regard to the difficulties you are having.  A gap between what you think is important and what the other person thinks must be closed.  The test in closing it is results.  Does the difficulty you are having with the person go right to the heart of the results you need to achieve?
 
The person says you don't listen.  Do you agree?  Is that person's perception important?  Until you can come to agreement as to whether you were or were not listening and the importance of that, you'll continue to have difficulties.  Which means you won't be able to go to the next, and most important, step.
 
(4)Transform.  Transform the specific into a results process, a process that will get you increases in results. Without such a process, the previous steps are useless.  For instance, let's say you both come to an agreement that you need to be more attentive when the person is speaking.  Then, you might develop a "listening process."  Such a process may involve applying "continuers." This is a process taught in medical schools to help overbearing doctors be more empathetic with their patients.  When interacting with patients, the doctors are taught to say, "uh huh" three times when the other person is talking before saying a word.  
 
Of course, "continuers" are one of many listening processes you can draw on. And clearly, "not listening" is one of many problems one might have with the people you lead.  Whatever process you come upon in whatever difficulty you are having with people, that process must achieve specific increases in results -- more results than if you had not used the process. 
 
As for the "not listening" example: You may pick out one actionable item from what was being said that can lead to results increases. I worked with a leader who did this.  Several people he led accused him of ignoring them, and consequently those people were bucking his leadership.  They all sat down around a conference table and went through this four-step process.  They developed a process to actively and systematically listen to one another and come to agreement on what was spoken and what was heard.  Then they selected actionable particulars that came out of their communication.  They made sure they followed through on implementing those particulars to achieve increases in hard, measured results.
 
Like the poor, the people who cause us difficulties will always be with us. No matter how experienced and successful you are as a leader, difficult people will always be lined up outside your door, wanting into your life.  Moreover, there are probably a lot of them inside the door too, trying to cut you down to size, thwart your plans, besmirch your reputation.
 
Instead of clashing with them or avoiding them, try appreciating them.  When you use this process, you may find that they're not liabilities but assets.

 

2006© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"