Learning how to work with difficult people was the focus of a conference attended recently by a good friend of mine. I didn't know at first what struck me as odd about assigning a "life coach" to administrators for guidance with the development of this particular skill. And then the root of my discomfort unfolded. What does "difficult" mean? What about looking within to find what might make anyone problematic, at times, as a coworker? And is it possible, really, to prevent interpersonal difficulty?


My thoughts turned once again to these simple words offered by the Dalai Lama: "Inner peace is the key: if you have inner peace, the external problems do not affect your deep sense of peace and tranquility. In that state of mind you can deal with situations with calmness and reason..." (A Policy of Kindness). Ah. If I develop a peaceful internal life, I can handle troubles as they arise. And arise they will! Rather than focusing on another's behavior, I'll work on my own shortcomings and cultivate my strengths. What about that focus as a conference topic?

My friend and I discussed what almost anyone wants in the workplace. We agreed that people like to be heard. If you have been labeled "difficult," it will be easy for others to disregard what you say from the outset. Ask questions: Why do you think that? Is there something on your mind? How can we work together?  We agreed that people need to know that, in many ways, their work is appreciated, and they want to be told. Why would they still be employed if their work had no redeeming qualities?! And, for her colleagues as well as for mine (and for my students), people like the cushion of a forgiving atmosphere. Where the expectation of blame and harsh criticism rule, backs go up and tempers flare. Set the bar high for excellence and dedication; make gentle allowance for demands on time outside the office. No one is spared worry or grief. Everyone can make the effort to be a good listener, to express appreciation, and to give the benefit of the doubt. And, to develop the instinct to look within first....

Just a cursory view of the stalemate in Washington in negotiations over the national budget showcases the fact that people can prove beyond difficult and common ground hard to find. Indeed, the headaches of narcissism, manipulation, and rudeness persist. What might the Tibetan monk as life coach suggest? "Compassion...is based on the fact that the other person, just like oneself, wants happiness and does not want suffering.... This compassion is based on reason, not an emotional feeling. As a consequence, it does not matter what the other's attitude is, whether negative or positive. What matters is that it is a human being...."

What if each of us pondered how others would like working with me? What if we first looked in our individual mirrors for home improvement projects?  Might harmony grow in the workplace? Surely my students want me to question how I would feel as a student in my class. We must "cultivate...more concern for other people, more clear realization of our sameness as human beings." Then, if the Dalai Lama is correct, difficulty fades fast.

About the Author

Marietta McCarty

Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.

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