The Gift of Difficult People

by Nick on January 30, 2015

On a recent management course a delegate asked, “How does one deal with difficult people?” “What do you mean by difficult?,” I replied. “For example, in a meeting … people who interrupt, text, or busy themselves in their e-mails.”

“Let’s assume first that they might have good reasons. Why might they do that?”

The group soon realised that like themselves these were busy people with a lot on their plate. It further dawned on them that people often switch off or get irritated because the meeting or presentation is boring, irrelevant, or not well planned. Or that the presenter has low energy, is unable to engage with those present, unstructured, or unable to think from perspectives other than their own. 

In other words, the responsibility of communication always lies with the communicator. 

“Flag the benefits of your proposals up front, show how what you have to say will help resolve their real and pressing issues, then you’ll get instant attention and motivation to listen.”

“But what if I’ve done that? What about those who seem to have a malign intention? Those who go out of their way to undermine me or the meeting?” 

“Then don’t take it personally. It’s their stuff. It’s information about them. On the other hand, you’ve still got to deal with it. So you need to develop strategies to manage the situation in an adult to adult way, firmly yet respectfully. Their resistance creates the opportunity for your learning and development.”

That piqued their interest so I added, “Let me offer you a frame so you can see through another lens …” 

During the 1920s, the philosopher and spiritual teacher, G I Gurdjieff, was running a high powered, two week programme at Fontainebleau in France. The course was entitled ‘Consciousness.’ These days it would be called ‘Mindfulness’ or ‘Resilience’ or some such. A score of eminent business people, educationalists, and socialites from across Europe were enrolled.

During the first day one of the participants, Edvard, proved to be a first class pain: rude, aggressive, contradictory, bullying, belittling. His behaviour had a profoundly negative impact on the group and their learning. So that evening they decided to get rid of him. History doesn’t tell exactly what they did but it seems to have had the desired effect. Next morning Edvard was nowhere to be seen; he’d packed his bags and left.

“Where’s Edvard?” asked Gurdjieff. “Gone, thank goodness. He was disturbing us so we gave him an invitation he couldn’t refuse.”

“Then go and bring him back,” said Gurdjieff. “I’ll teach no more until Edvard is back in this room.”

“But why?” They were stunned.

“Because Edvard is the very lesson you most need to learn. He is the difficult gift, the grit in the oyster, that invites you not to stay small but to develop and grow.  You don’t develop by taking the easy option. Find some new strategies to work with him, engage with him, and influence him while remaining true to yourselves. You don’t have the power to change Edvard. You don’t have the power to change anyone but yourself …

“But by being willing to change yourselves, by becoming more flexible and skilful in how you engage with him and with each other, you don’t need to change him. What you will change is the ‘system’ that holds us together as a group. As the system changes you’ll find that Edvard will have to change too in order to accommodate that. And as you grapple with the challenge he presents, you’ll find potential in yourself you never knew was there. Change your frame. Consider Edvard not as a pain … but as a profound gift and blessing on your journey towards mastery.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jonathan Geard-Beney March 2, 2015 at 10:47

I always find the stories Nick tells: of his own or passed along, amazingly inspiring. They capture an idea so concisely and remind me of the truths that I hold dear.

This message has reminded me of a story of my own, where my ‘lesson’ became my Savior – a professional makeup artist from Hollywood…but that is another story!


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