Difficult is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it? If I’m working with you and find you difficult, doesn’t that mean you are difficult? If you find me difficult to work with, does that make me difficult? Or, looking at it differently, could it be that difficult is personally, culturally or contextually constructed? I’ll give some examples to show what I mean. Personal: ‘I don’t like your approach’; cultural: ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’; contextual: ‘Your way of doing things isn’t what’s needed here and now.’
There are all kinds of factors like these that can make a relationship feel difficult. If we’ve had a difficult encounter with a person before, or even someone this person reminds us of, the power of imagination can go wild. Stop for a moment. Imagine approaching a real person that you find very difficult to work with…as if about to enter the room. What stories are you telling yourself, albeit subconsciously, about yourself, the other person, the situation, God? How are they impacting you?
Our beliefs influence how we feel. What we believe and how we feel influence how we behave. What we feel and how we behave influence how the other person experiences us. We may make all sorts of assumptions about the other person, inferring intentions from their actions that may or may not be true. What we believe to be true is ‘true’ – for us. This should cause us to pause and reflect. What assumptions are we making? What may we be inadvertently evoking in the other person?
Curiosity can be a great bridge builder, especially if exercised with openness, courage and humility. If you encounter a ‘difficult’ person and relationship, try offering an observation first, invite feedback then explore goals and values. Observation: ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’ Goals: ‘A great outcome for me would be X. What would be a great outcome for you?’ Values: ‘What’s important to me in this is Y. What’s most important to you?’ What do you think?
I woke on the floor by the front door with blood on my head. I had no idea how I had got there or how long I had been laying in that position. I tried to lift myself up, weakly, and saw pieces of wood all around me. I was puzzled and confused, disorientated. It turns out I had fallen unconscious and fallen through a wooden table. I half-crawled, half-staggered, to a different room and collapsed.
This experience taught me vividly how suddenly and dramatically our circumstances can change. In this case, I had a contracted a severe infection and was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. In other situations, it could be e.g. a sudden loss of a relationship or a job, a loss of someone or something important to us. It can come out of nowhere, leaving us lost, shocked and reeling.
There’s something about loss that can fundamentally challenge our sense of security and certainty, especially in wealthy nations where we cushion and insure ourselves against all kinds of pain and hardship. It can force us to face deep spiritual and existential questions that lay out of reach of simple ‘positive thinking’, e.g. who are we, why are we here, who and what really matters?
So a reflection and challenge for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers. How far do we face and address profound life questions in our work? How far do we allow ourselves to stay on the surface, the superficial, without going deeper? How far are we willing to travel with people, if they want to, into spiritual and existential places? How well do we handle it if people pose such questions to us?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.