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Rafter on the Green River, Washington State. Copyright 2006, by Blue~Canoe,, used by license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rafter on the Green River, Washington State

How often do you have to deal with difficult people? Even if it’s not very often, it’s still too often.

I think of difficult people this way: having a conversation with them is like navigating down a white water river with Class III and Class IV rapids. You can’t paddle against the currents. The only thing you can do is guide the conversation towards the clearest, best-flowing part of the river, stay well away from the terminal hydraulics, and get yourself safely to the take-out.

When having conversations with difficult people, start by listening.

So how do you guide the conversation down this metaphorical, difficult whitewater river?

Here’s a recommendation from John Halamka, M.D., CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Information Systems at BIDMC is responsible for all clinical, financial, research, education, and administrative applications, supporting multiple care facilities, maintaining a disaster-recovery data center, administering some 20K user accounts, managing thousands of devices from iPhones to desktops, and providing upwards of 1.5 petabytes of storage.

When dealing with a difficult person, says Halamka, the answer isn’t to tell them they’re being difficult, challenge any of their assertions, or try to make them see reason. Rather, the answer is to practice active listening.

“When an unreasonable person asserts an opinion that I know not to be true, I do not argue with them. Instead I ask them to express their point of view more fully. I then replay back to them what I heard.” (“Dealing with Difficult People,” Wednesday, May 6, 2015)

Why active listening helps.

1. You give the difficult person a chance to speak.

As Halamka points out, and rightly so, “people want to be heard.” Just listening to a difficult person can make them less difficult. It’s like scouting a rapid before you run it.

2. You let the difficult person hear what they’re really asking for.

Simply replaying, in your own words, the person’s point of view, helps them assess their demands. That alone can prompt a difficult person to modify their request to something more reasonable. It’s like allowing a river to reduce its flow and moderate its dangerous features.

3. You hear what the difficult person’s needs really are.

The person might be making demands that seem unreasonable, because in the past they haven’t gotten what they need. What appears to be “difficultness” is actually frustration, dissatisfaction, and their team, or division, not being able to meet their organizational goals. It’s like paying closer attention to the river, and finding that navigating it is different from what you thought.

Listen to the difficult person, and help them be less difficult.

As Halamka said, people want to be heard. When you’re having a conversation with a difficult person who wants the impossible, start by listening actively. While it takes time to listen to people, doing so often makes them less difficult. And that gives you more time to meet your goals and the goals of your organization.

John Halamka’s Blog

John Halamka’s blog is at Life as a Healthcare CIO. It’s an informative read. It’s entertaining as well, because he posts about his and his wife’s farm, Unity Farm. They raise bees, grow much of their own food, and are starting to distill and sell apple cider.


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