Coping with challenging people
When I was younger I loved action movies. The explosions and fights, fueled by testosterone, were fun to watch. I didn’t realize that I was also learning an important lesson about how to deal with others. No, I’m not talking about blowing them up! I was being schooled in the “Steven Seagal approach to dealing with difficult people.”
Steven Seagal, an action star from the 1990s (Remember the movies Under Siege, Above the Law, and Hard to Kill?), practiced the martial art Aikido. The idea of this concept is to absorb the opponent’s force and redirect it. Most of us have been taught the “boxing approach” to dealing with problematic people and relationships. We either meet force with a matching force, or “absorb the punch with our face.”
“Validate, accept and support before trying to teach, correct, influence, or fix the problem.”
The “Aikido way” to do this is to validate, accept and support before trying to teach, correct, influence, or fix the problem. And, it is not enough to say, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” It works way better if you show someone you understand by repeating their words back to them in your own way, while listening for the feelings behind their words. I call this “drive-thru talking,” echoing the order to make sure you got it right. It works something like this: if the other person says, “I hate this weather,” you can reflect this back, “So, what you’re saying is this weather is really getting you down?” I know this sounds like a lot of extra effort, but if you can show that you understand, and validate how the other person is feeling, most of the issue is already resolved. You don’t have to agree with the other person’s feelings or opinion to validate that they see it that way. If you acknowledge it is true for them (feelings, opinions, etc.), that’s all you need to do. Once people feel heard and understood they are much more open to discussion.
There’s another thing I learned from Steven Seagal. He was criticized for being deadpan and not showing emotion in his “acting.” This is an approach you can adopt; not being blank, but being calm. Of course, it is not easy to be engaged and unattached at the same time —but that’s exactly what is needed when you are dealing with conflict or a difficult person. You have more success when you are fully engaged in the process, and with the individual, but are unattached to having situations go a certain way. Stay open to how matters may develop, and practice “drive-thru talking.”
The importance of being engaged while staying unattached was hammered home to me in my training (both as a psychologist, and as a black belt in Karate), and is important to you, too. Your main task is to manage your own emotional and physical state. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that you perform at your best (hear, think, and speak more clearly) when you’re calm. The second reason is that when you are more stable, you provide a template for the other person to settle down. If you know you are going to have to deal with someone difficult, prepare yourself. Visualize something pleasant; get some extra rest; eat well; go for a quick walk, or do whatever it takes to help you get into a positive and calm headspace. If you are ambushed, call a “time-out” by going to the bathroom, and take a moment to get yourself together.
Being aware of, and managing, your own state works great in the moment—but practice doing it all the time—so the technique is there when you need it (like Steven did – practicing and training in Aikido long before he had to deal with any bad guys in his movies). Start by taking mini-breaks of one to two minutes, where you just sit or stand and take a few deep breaths, noticing what your body is doing (mindfulness), a few times during the day. This can make a huge difference in your overall state of calm. You will quickly learn that it’s okay to slow down, and you will begin to automatically stop moving every now and then, so you don’t get caught in a spiral of emotions or negativity. You will find that you are calmer in general, have more energy at the end of the day, feel happier, and sleep better, too!
“You perform at your best when you’re calm.”
Happiness is also an important condition to focus on when you’re not in active conflict. Think of your life like balance scales (e.g., the scales of justice). The more energy draining concerns you have on one side, the more you need energy giving things on the other, if you want to stay balanced. My goal is to make you unbalanced in the positive direction!
Some other elements that can add positivity to your life include: sleep; vacations; a healthy diet; spirituality; a good psychologist; friends; hobbies, and journalling. Remember, “The better you feel—the better you do!” This is especially so if you find yourself “Under Siege” when dealing with difficult people.