“D” is for Dealing with “Difficult” People

“Dealing with Difficult People” … that’s the title of a CPD program that attracted over 300 lawyers from across Canada.

Why such a popular program? Are there that many difficult people?

Even lawyers, who can be labelled as difficult themselves, encounter difficult clients, co-workers, court staff, opposing counsel etc… So what’s the solution?

For professional coaches like Lindsay Sukornyk (of North Star Coaching) and myself, who led the program, it means an opportunity to learn something new. Making the impossible, possible.

When we label someone as being “difficult”, we are essentially pre-determining the outcome of interacting with that person. While it may be true that previous interactions were indeed difficult, we’re not really allowing any other option to take shape when we continue to label that person as “difficult.”

In other words, dealing with a difficult person is not a hopeless cause. But, it is a choice: a choice to continue down the same path, or try something new.

Below is a real-life scenario that Lindsay and I deconstructed for the audience. See if there’s anything new you can learn…

A “Difficult” Partner

Here’s the backdrop:

You are in a meeting with a partner in your firm to discuss the latest assignment you’ve submitted. You find this partner difficult to please – always looking for something wrong with your work. As usual, the partner has chosen to critique your assignment and not offer any positive remarks.

This scenario might not apply to you directly, but I think we can all relate to the dynamics at play. So, put yourself in the situation, and ask, “What would I do?”

CLAIM the Conversation

I am going to share one practical tool that we received much feedback on: CLAIM the conversation. It’s an acronym developed by the folks at St. Stephen’s Community House – a Toronto based conflict resolution service (http://www.sschto.ca/Conflict-Resolution-Training/Community-Mediation).

  1. To start, you will want to remain CALM and focus on what the speaker is saying and not necessarily how. Too often, we become defensive about the way someone says something and miss out on a chance that truly benefits us.
  2. Then, you will want to LISTEN for what’s most important to the speaker. You’ll want to hear what’s really going on beneath the surface. So in this case, perhaps you begin to realize that the assignment relates to a new client (one that the partner has recently acquired), and so you begin to appreciate that the partner is trying to impress the new client. So what’s really important is making sure that the client is happy and sticks around.
  3. The “A” stands for ACKNOWLEDGE. To ensure you have an accurate understanding of what’s going on, you will want to reflect back what you have heard and give the speaker an opportunity to respond.
  4. The “I” stands for “INVITING INFORMATION”. You will want ask questions that allow the speaker to provide more information. In my experience, there is a tendency to be brief when assigning work to associates. So much so that associates often feel hamstrung when trying to figure out the bigger picture of an assignment. You’ll, therefore, want to ask questions that are open ended. In this example, you might ask the partner “How does this assignment fit into the bigger picture?” “What is the client expecting from this assignment?” Or, “How is my assignment going to help you?”
  5. After you’ve remained Calm, Listened to the speaker, Acknowledged them, and asked questions to Invite more Information, you will be ideally suited to MOVE towards problem solving. That’s the “M” of CLAIM. If you are in a position to offer some suggestions, ask the speaker for their input and ideas. So in this case, you might say something like:
    “I understand how important this new client is to you. I’ve taken note of the 8 things that you want me to fix before the report goes out. The deadline is 4pm, which is 10 minutes away. If I need to prioritize the fixes, I am thinking that items X, Y, Z would be most valuable to the client. What do you think?”

Outcomes and Benefits

You might be surprised at how someone responds to a statement and question like the above example. Articulating your understanding of the situation, and willingness to move forward, can disarm a “difficult” person and help them see matters from a different perspective.

Of course, there isn’t always a happy ending. You might find that your new approach doesn’t change things immediately or at all. If it’s the former, then your efforts are still worthwhile, particularly if you have to deal with that person on a regular basis. If it’s the latter, or you suspect something deeper is going on, then you may need to employ a different set of tools with which your Human Resources department or Member Assistance Program (http://www.lsuc.on.ca/map/) can assist.

The associate who used the CLAIM approach in this particular scenario witnessed a most unusual result: the partner asked how much more time the associate needed, and then called the client to explain that an additional hour was necessary to incorporate the partner’s final comments. The client didn’t seem to mind and, for the first time, the associate felt appreciated…not a bad outcome!

When will you CLAIM a difficult situation?

Lawyer Coach Paulette works with lawyers and law students on: Career Planning, Personal Branding, and Performance Inside and Outside the Courtroom.


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