Oct 12, 2011

HBR: The Secret to Dealing with Difficult People

Tony Schwartz, among other things a blogger on the Harvard Business Review network, recently offered advice about a common issue both in the workplace and in one’s non-work life: the need to deal with difficult people, those who fit this description:
Do you have someone at work who consistently triggers you? Doesn’t listen? Takes credit for work you’ve done? Wastes your time with trivial issues? Acts like a know-it-all? Can only talk about himself? Constantly criticizes?
Such people, of course, are not a new or unique feature of modern society.  In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discussed such people, as did Plato, Epictetus, Augustine and a number of ancient philosophers in their turn.  Aristotle is particularly interesting to point to, though, because he analyses the emotional response of — and virtues and vices associated with — anger.  I've written about this in greater depth elsewhere on the web (here, here, and here), so I'm just going to mention a few features of Aristotle's theory relevant to Schwartz's advice.

There are a variety of causes for the feeling or emotion of anger, many of which have to do with being “slighted," “looked down upon,” “disvalued” — all of the behaviors just mentioned can trigger anger, since all of them involve or at least imply the angering person visibly (or at least apparently) valuing him- or herself above the person affected and angered by the behavior.

Some of these also correspond in with one recognizable type or style of vicious behavior — habitually bad, based in bad choices and wrongheaded evaluations — what Aristotle in Greek called khalepos, and what we might translate as “difficult,” “troublesome,” “rancorous,” or even colloquially as “pain in the ass.”  Finding fault, criticizing, acting like a know-it-all — these fit that bill.

Schwartz analyses the dynamic occurring when we are forced to deal with such people day in and day out — even worse, as he points out, when the person is in a position of authority.
Our core emotional need is to feel valued and valuable. When we don’t, it’s deeply unsettling, a challenge to our sense of equilibrium, security, and well-being.
The easy default when we feel devalued is to the role of victim, and it’s a seductive pull. Blaming others for how we’re feeling is a form of self-protection. Whatever is going wrong isn’t our fault. By off loading responsibility, we feel better in the short-term.
Accordingly, beginning from this starting point, these principles, the advice that he will give is that we shift the focus and blame entirely away from the other, offending, person, and onto ourselves.
The problem with being a victim is that you cede the power to influence your circumstances. The painful truth when it comes to the people who trigger you is this: You’re not going to change them. The only person you have the possibility of changing is yourself.
Each of us has a default lens through which we see the world. We call it reality, but in fact it’s a selective filter. We have the power, to view the world through other lenses.
This represents a commonly adopted strategy and standpoint, not only in moral theory but also in psychology.  The ancient Stoic ethics of Epictetus' famous Enchiridion and the modern day Cognitive-Behavior Therapy of many a practitioner and theorist provide similar analyses, point out similar insights -- and one might point our many other perspectives, some of them possessed of long and illustrious pedigrees, that similarly advise first abandoning any hope of changing others, ceasing blame of others, and then focusing on one’s own reactions, examining one’s own presuppositions, and eventually modifying one’s outlook in order to become progressively less and less negatively affected by continued poor behavior of others.

The three alternate lenses Schwartz advocates looking at matters through do represent some good advice.  It is often useful, even prudent to complement our desire- and emotion-infused views on things by taking a view of “realistic optimism,” trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, and looking at things through “a long lens” — useful and prudent when done right, though, when such views are adopted at the right time, for the right reason, with the right people, and so on — when they’re adopted and relied upon in the ways a virtuous person does, not wholesale, not without qualification.

The comments to Schwartz's advice were particularly interesting to read.  Some were supportive, and a few interesting conversations take place in the comment section.  But there were also a number of negative responses of varying merit.  Here’s a selection of critical  reactions:

What a cowardly way to deal with adversity!  If you are an adult and you know you are being treated badly, or accused of something that you did , or did badly this is a poor method to assuage your anger. I say assert yourself if you know you are right.  If you start using filters the bad treatment will not stop and probably get worse.
Enough is enough in the office nowadays.  How long will bullying go on in the workplace?  People need to be more assertive in dealing with these situations and put the bad leaders/bullies in their place, or just get them the heck out of there!  There is nothing else to analyze or even speak about, it is as simple as that.
It takes courage to speak up. It can be done firmly without resulting in distancing oneself from others. In the long run you are respected for keeping to your convictions.
Honestly, this is a bunch of EST-sounding thumb-sucking that restates well-known bromides  without giving any new information or skills about how actually, in practicality to deal with difficult people.
It’s revealing that in some respect the conversation shifts from issues of anger to those of courage — though not surprising, given the significant connections highlighted by Plato and Aristotle between both the emotions, situations, and characteristic actions involved and the virtues and vices themselves.

Turning focus back to the emotion and the larger pattern of response of anger, and looking at the issue of dealing with difficult, irritating, dysfunctional people from a Virtue Ethics perspective, what comes immediately to mind are two main doctrines.

First, good, right, virtuous actions and responses are those which a person who actually possesses the appropriate virtue for the matter in question would do or make.  One doing them of course might not be virtuous — one might be in the process of becoming virtuous by choosing to behave in the right ways even though it runs counter to one’s desires or inclinations, for example.  But the virtuous person provides the norm, the paradigm, the model.

And what is that paradigm like?  How does a virtuous person act?  When it comes to anger, Aristotle — and a number of other virtue ethicists throughout the long history of the tradition — maintain that there are definitely some cases in which anger, and expression of anger, even behavior following from anger, is the right response.  When?

Answering that, as Aristotle points out, is not something which one can actually reduce to and resolve by hard-and-fast, cover-every-case rules — certainly not by treating anger itself as basically bad, as a problem which is one’s own problem, to be resolved by altering, even widening, enhancing — but still altering one’s perspective, “changing oneself” in the sense that Schwartz seems to have in mind.

Virtue Ethics does certainly emphasize “changing oneself”, but in such ways as to develop habitual structures, and practical wisdom, which gradually and progressively integrate those changes and the additional distinctions and resources acquired into coherent and adaptable patterns of behavior, outlook, and desire.  It’s a matter of moving towards doing or feeling the right things, at the right time, for the right reason, with the right people, with the right degree of intensity, and so on — whether for the response of anger itself … or even for how one incorporates, employs, and relies upon and those three perspectival “lenses” Schwartz advocates.  They're not so much sure-fire means for resolving situations involving anger, as tools which require some guidance, some discretion. . .  even some development of virtue to be used properly.

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