3 Steps to Conquering "People Problems"

Sometimes they sneak up on us. Other times we put off dealing with them and they loom in the background. You might make it a week or two without encountering one, but no one can avoid them for long. They can cause anxiety, anger, frustration, and leave your stomach in knots.

I’m not talking about the spiders in your garage or the overdue bills on your desk. I’m talking about uncomfortable and potentially messy “people problems.”

Conflict Is Inevitable

You know them well. You’re bound to encounter them because, as humans, we know that disagreement, differing perspectives, conflict, and issues are inevitable. Here are just a few “fun” examples that you might relate to:

  • You need to tell your mother that you don’t want to go to her house this year for Thanksgiving dinner (even though you always have before).
  • You’re watching your boss make a potentially catastrophic decision in front of a customer and you need to speak up.
  • You're trying to share your concerns with a friend about some self-destructive behaviors you have observed.
  • You’re in an argument with your neighbor over their dog and how it’s always relieving itself in your yard.

For many people, thinking about dealing with these types of issues results in breaking out into a cold sweat. What is it that makes them so difficult? Why do they cause so much dread and anxiety? Why do they often spiral out of control?

According to the bestselling book “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, these potentially cringe-worthy scenarios often emerge when three factors are in play: there is a difference of opinion; something important is at stake, and emotions are strong.

And when confronted with these situations, which often unfold within what the authors call a Crucial Conversation, many people will do one of two things. They:

  1. run, hide, and avoid them, or
  2. jump right in and handle them terribly.

Has Your Amygdala Been Hijacked?

The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain which regulates the fight or flight response. Don't let your amygdala hijack your ability to deal with conflict like it does in a life threatening situation!

The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain which regulates the fight or flight response. Don't let your amygdala hijack your ability to deal with conflict like it does in a life threatening situation!

There is a simple reason why some of us tuck tail and run while others charge like a bull in response to a tough people problem or conversation. Daniel Goleman describes it using the term “amygdala hijack.”

The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain which regulates the fight or flight response. When we perceive an issue or disagreement as a threat (which many of our brains are prone to do), a strong emotional reaction wells up. In other words, we react like we are being attacked. The “thinking” part of our brain turns down and the “feeling” part of the brain takes over.

This reaction is designed as a survival mechanism to keep us alive if, for instance, a wild tiger walks up to you in the street. That’s great for surviving a random tiger attack. It isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to work through an issue with another person.

The bottom line is this – either running or fighting can have disastrous results when we are dealing with people problems. That’s because our ability to resolve these issues through meaningful conversations is critical to our happiness, success, relationships, and well-being.

This raises an important question – how can we improve our ability to handle these types of issues? How can we find solutions to people problems through conversation, even as opinions diverge and emotions rev up?

3 Strategies to Mastering Difficult Conversations

While developing the skills to truly master these conversations can take a lot of time and practice, here are three basic strategies you can start using right away to get better results:

  1. avoid getting caught off guard,
  2. learn to pay attention to yourself, and
  3. seek to bring out the best in the other person.

One key note before you jump in – for these strategies to work, we assume that you have some shared interest with the other person. That there is some reason for you to care about their perspective and to have empathy for them (e.g. you’d like for your mother to not disown you over your decision on Thanksgiving dinner). Or, if don’t care very much for the other person, you at least have some other big picture motivation for resolving the problem in a civil and fair way (e.g. you don’t have to be best friends with your neighbor after the dog conversation but you’d rather not be in an all-out war with him either).

Author’s note – In my coaching work, I often come across people that aren’t bothered at all by these types of people issues. They’ll even say they look forward to taking on difficult conversations. They’ll say they aren’t afraid to “tell the truth” like other people. That’s awesome! But sometimes a little red flag goes up when I hear these same people say “I have no issues at all telling someone like it is.”  The question for these folks is, are you getting good results? In other words, when you happily “told someone off,” did you achieve the outcome you were seeking? Or did you drive the other person away and create a bigger problem? If you think you might be in this bucket, don’t blow off the rest of the article. The same techniques that work for someone who is nervous about these types of conversations will also work for you.

Step 1: Avoid Getting Caught off Guard and Set a Plan

The first step in handling these problems and conversations well is to see them coming and catch them before they go wrong. This means being conscious of people problems as they arise and watching for an early amygdala hijack.

For example, if a sticky situation starts brewing, we can quickly build up a lot of anxiety and anger, even before we have all of the facts or a chance to reflect on what is going happening. We unconsciously start to build assumptions about why the other person is wrong, why they are a jerk, why we are right, and why we feel we should “win” this issue. Here’s an example of a scenario where this might happen:

You and your boss are in the middle of a challenging project where there has been some tension and disagreement. At the end of a long day, he pokes his head into your office and says “we need to talk” with a hint of frustration in his voice and leaves with no additional explanation.

It’s easy to see how this situation can spiral out of control, especially if we miss the opportunity to diagnose it as an emerging “people problem.” Our first thought might be, “what was that all about?” followed by, “he’s so rude,” which then escalates into “he doesn’t even care about my work, he’s totally unfair, and he doesn’t listen to what I say!” 

Within moments, we feel hurt or we become furious. How might we react in this mindset? Sneak out the back door and blow him off? Or march into his office and blurt out “WHAT DO YOU WANT!?”  In either case, this situation is now likely to devolve into something ugly. That’s unfortunate. It distracts from the real matter at hand, which is finishing the project while preserving your reputation and relationships at work.

When a people problem sneaks up on us, we aren’t in our best position to be successful. You’ve got a much better chance to do well if you can spot the situation as it unfolds and catch yourself before your brain betrays you.

Ask yourself, is there potential for disagreement, are there important stakes, and are emotions involved? If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, slow down and take a few moments to set a plan. Consider, what do I really want to get out of this? What is the ideal outcome? What might the other person want? What do we have in common? What things might set me off? What might be upsetting to them? Working through this step will help you overcome your initial emotional reaction and to re-focus on what is really important.

Step 2: Once You’re in a Tough Conversation, Learn to Pay Attention to Yourself

In Step 1, we made a conscious effort to be thoughtful and avoid an early emotional hijack. The goal of Step 2 is to build awareness of what is happening within ourselves during a conversation and to slow things down before we start engaging in self-defeating behaviors.

Let’s stick with our boss scenario. You’ve managed to collect and compose yourself before you head to his office. You ask him what’s up. He proceeds to tell you that the work you’ve been doing over the past two weeks is all wrong and that you need to start from scratch. You’re horrified by this suggestion. You completely disagree. At this point, your brain isn’t interested in understanding if your boss is right or wrong. It sees a tiger.

This is a critical moment and, if you’re not paying attention to what is happening, you can easily be overwhelmed. You may engage in two classic reactions. One is to shut down completely, roll your eyes and say “whatever you say.”  Another is to launch back with an attack and yell out, “What, are you insane? That’s a stupid idea!” 

Those reactions may feel justified in the moment, but neither are particularly helpful. In fact, they are both self-defeating and likely to make your situation more miserable.

As with Step 1, the key here is to learn to be more conscious of what is happening in your mind and body. When you feel the hijack coming on, take a deep breath. Ask yourself again, what do I really need to accomplish? What is the bigger picture goal that is important? This will help you shake off an unhelpful reaction and replace it with one that is more thoughtful. For instance, “I don’t like the sound of having to re-do all of that work but I’m curious to understand what is going on and see what solutions we can find.”

Here an important point - being thoughtful about how you react doesn’t meant that you can never express your feelings. It just means that you are in control – that you’re sharing your feelings without clamming up or exploding. There is nothing wrong with saying “that suggestion is upsetting to me” or “I have to be honest, that idea is frustrating for me.”

Step 3: Seek to Bring Out the Best in the Other Person

Once we become more aware of how our emotions can inform our reactions, it’s easier to see when the same processes unfold in other people. Step 3 is making an effort to be more patient as we navigate an issue and looking for opportunities to help bring out a thoughtful response in the other person.

Let’s take one last look at the at our boss scenario. You’ve managed to stay in control and put your best foot forward as this difficult situation unfolds. However, your boss’s engine is still revving. He’s just as upset about the prospect of re-work as you are and he’s feeling a lot of pressure. You can see that he is in attack mode.

Instead of getting drawn into a fight, it’s time to show a little empathy, re-focus on your shared interests, and offer a helping hand. You might say “I can see that you are upset. It’s understandable considering the circumstances. How can we address this in a way that keeps the project on track?” This approach doesn’t guarantee that things will suddenly be rosy, but it does open up the door to conversation that may actually be productive.

In Summary

Developing the skills to spot and address people problems won’t happen overnight. But it’s a critical, game-changing skill that is worth spending time and effort on. As you build your confidence and experience, you’ll stop avoiding people problems and start handling them like a pro.

Let us know in the comments below, what conflicts have you found yourself in and how did you resolve them? How have you managed people problems and what have you learned?

Before you go, here are a few final thoughts to consider:

  • Skillfully handling a problem or difficult conversation doesn’t mean giving in or suppressing your emotions. It also doesn’t mean that every conflict will have a happy ending. It does mean that you are being conscious about putting your best foot forward.
  • When you feel an emotional hijack setting in, remember to ask the questions, “what do I want to accomplish?” and “what shared interests am I seeking?”  This will help re-claim the thinking part of our brain. Look for solutions, not meaningless victories to prove a point.
  • These skills take time to develop. There are many resources out there that can help. I strongly suggest that you read Crucial Conversations. The authors dive much further into this subject and provide dozens of specific techniques on how to manage yourself and work with others. These concepts are also at the heart of Emotional Intelligence. Seek more training and coaching to make this stick. We’ll have many more articles, videos, and resources on these topics in the future.