We’ve all faced the challenge of dealing with difficult people – those who refuse to give you what you want in negotiation for no clear reason other than sheer stubbornness. But dismissing others as stubborn, irrational, and difficult is typically a mistake.
When dealing with difficult employees, clients, customers, and others, the most important step you can take is typically to stop looking at them as stubborn and to begin listening closely to their concerns.
One interesting example is that of the multinational child-support treaty, the Uniform Interstate Family Security Act (UIFSA) of 2008. The United States, the European Union, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway, and Ukraine negotiated the treaty over the course of five years in The Hague. The treaty’s goal was to improve enforcement of child-support orders across international and state borders.
In the United States, the treaty needed to be approved by all 50 states to be ratified. This treaty has been widely viewed as a noncontroversial means of improving the lives of children whose parents are trying to hide from their legal duty to pay child support.
Noncontroversial, except for in the US state of Idaho. In April 2015, a House committee of the Idaho state legislature vote 9-8 to kill a bill that would have given state approval of the treaty.
The nine committee members who voted down the bill expressed a variety of concerns about the treaty, according to the Idaho Statesman. They said they feared that foreign authorities would gain access to personal information about Idahoans, although federal officials said this would not be the case. They expressed concern about potentially having to enforce foreign laws and an international treaty.
In the press, the legislators were largely portrayed as obstinate and prideful. But they felt that they themselves were dealing with difficult people, reacting to what they characterized as strong-arm tactics from the federal government. To lawmakers’ dismay, they were told they could not amend or negotiate amendments to the bill because it was part of an international treaty, an awkward position for lawmakers who answer to their constituencies and not to federal officials.
Most distressing, federal officials threatened to cut $16 million in funding for Idaho’s child welfare system on June 12, 2015 if the bill did not pass. The move would “effectively dismantle the state’s child-support enforcement arm,” according to the Times. He paraphrased the feds message as, “You need to sign it, and if you don’t we’re going to beat the crud out of you.”
The situation speaks to the inherent problems with treating a potential negotiation as a means of managing difficult people. Whether you are dealing with difficult coworkers or working with difficult people more generally in your work life, the following guidelines should help you look at them in a more constructive light:
1. Listen to their concerns.
Rather than setting aside ample time to discuss the treaty with Idaho lawmakers, the federal government ineffectively conveyed the treaty’s provisions and thus Idaho lawmakers felt overwhelmed by what they saw as “new information.” Because of this, the Idaho lawmakers may have felt like the federal government was trying to rush them through the approval process by not allowing them to voice their concerns. To avoid dealing with difficult people, don’t give them a reason to be difficult in the first place.
2. Resist the urge to threaten.
The U.S. government’s decision to threaten to revoke federal funding served as a challenge to Idaho’s legislators. Sadly, it is the children who may pay the price for both sides’ destructive behavior. When dealing with difficult people (or, rather, those you consider to be difficult), avoid resorting to threats and punishment to try to get your way. Usually, an open and honest conversation is all that is needed for parties to begin to bridge their differences and find common ground.
3. Don’t go on a power trip.
In negotiation, powerful parties often have difficulty taking the perspective of their less powerful counterpart. This may explain in part why the federal government was so insensitive to Idaho lawmakers’ concerns. The more powerful you or your team is in a negotiation, the greater the need to avoid giving the other side the impression that they are working with difficult people.
Originally published in 2015.