Recently I attended a workshop led by two dynamic facilitators. Their credentials, renown, and years of experience certainly were impressive, but it was their handling of one incident during the session that truly highlighted their mastery of facilitation and connection to others and provided a great leadership lesson for dealing with difficult people.
Here’s what happened: As I settled into my chair in the front of the room, I heard a woman (Let’s call her Pat) behind me speaking in very irritated and angry tones. It seemed that someone had moved her belongings to another chair while she was up getting coffee. Pat clearly took this as an affront and fussed, mostly to herself, about inconsiderate and rude people. I noticed that people around her were looking somewhat uncomfortable.
The facilitators began the program and the energy in the room went up as we engaged in the discussion. Suddenly Pat began to complain again to people around her as she watched one of the workshop employees adjusting the thermostat. “What is he doing?,” she said to no one in particular. Then she called out to the facilitators to complain. “Why is he changing the temperature in here?,” she shouted. “I can’t be in this room if it is not cool enough!” As she continued to complain, she became more and more agitated. The shift in the room was palpable. People began to murmur, looking at her with surprise and annoyance.
How would you handle a situation like this? What have you done in the past when someone disrupts a meeting or challenges you in a public forum? Often we react in a defensive or combative manner, matching the person’s negative energy, or we ignore the outburst, hoping that the person gets the hint and changes their behavior.
Here’s how this situation played out: The facilitators were at first taken aback at the woman’s loud interruption. They weren’t quite sure what was going on. But they quickly recognized that they needed to focus on Pat, understand her issue, and diffuse the situation. Three questions did just that. “What do you need?,” they asked calmly and without judgment. Right away, Pat’s anger and anxiety seemed to ease. “How can we help to address what you need and move forward with the program?” She thought for a moment and responded. “And can you shift your energy so that you can get the most out of the session today and we can continue?” She nodded her head and seemed somewhat relieved. During the first break, I saw one of the facilitators approach Pat to check in with her and discuss the situation further privately.
By taking a page from these facilitators – focusing on the person; understanding their needs; asking questions; approaching the situation with calm, positive energy; asking for what you need; and checking in and following up after – you too can be more adept at handling difficult people and situations.
What successful strategies can you share for dealing with difficult people?