Years after I started running seminars on How to Handle Difficult People the demand is still there. It has been an enormously successful title. Thousands have attended (I stopped counting at 25,000) and shared their relationship problems and their ideas with me.  Despite the very real urgency for many people around difficult working relationships, it is a fast moving and fun event, which includes a lot of serious practical information and guidance on how to improve workplace communications.

But whole topic has become more intense than it was 15 years ago when I started presenting it around the UK. Despite its un-PC title (as I’m sure you know, there are no difficult people, only difficult behaviour), most people I spoke to could stand back and take an objective view of problems they were having with colleagues. They could separate from their anger and frustration long enough to apply the ideas and regain a sense of control.

Things are different these days. All of a sudden, in the last two years or so, the people attending my seminars and workshops on dealing with difficult people are often struggling, and sessions can begin to feel more like group therapy than training.

One reason for this may be that – with cuts, fewer staff and increased focus on results – the pressure is on in the workplace, particularly in the public sector where I do much of my work. Managers are being asked to do more with less; time and tolerance are at a premium, and patience and understanding are in short supply.

Another, related, reason is that ‘performance management’ is ever more an issue and this is increasing tensions around behaviour which are seen as non-compliant or unresponsive to requests for change. This has become more visible due to ubiquitous restructuring and the role-changes that it entails.

As if this wasn’t demanding enough, there is a third reason that many managers are finding persistently resistant behaviour tough to manage, and that has to do with their own language. Clear communications are occluded and situations begin to lack clarity, because in the workplace we seem to be losing the ability to say what we mean.

For example, there is an aversion in the working culture of many organisations to give an order or an instruction; instead we ‘suggest’ or ‘request’. We no longer ‘think’ something, we are more likely to hedge by saying we ‘feel’, and many people seem incapable of telling their staff exactly what is expected of them in a way that can be clearly understood, much less followed, because the language they use is too abstract.

These are speculations and there could be plenty of other reasons. The fact remains that I am meeting seriously distressed and demoralised managers these days, who often can’t see the wood for the trees. The result is that they are not as effective as they could be, their confidence is down and this has a negative effect on them, and the organisations they work for.

See also:

See my post: Driving with the handbrake on.

Order the book: Difficult People; a Guide to Handling Difficult Behaviour, ISR Publishing, 2005

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


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