What to do and what not to do with difficult partners was the subject of two recent posts (Leadership Frame #8 & #9). Coincidentally I came across a recent article from Travis Bradberry at Talent Smart (the EQ/emotional intelligence people) and he offered some more tips from an EQ perspective which I thought would be helpful for readers. Essentially this is about ensuring your own emotional intelligence is such that you are well prepared to deal with difficult partners. This requires understanding EQ and then having some EQ strategies you can use to assist in these situations.  I summarise some of these below with my liberal editing and annotation in the context of dealing with difficult partners.

Difficult partners, like angry babies, can at times be impossible. You need to be geared up to deal with them and not avoid the issues they bring to the firm. EQ techniques can provide some pointers.

Just like angry babies, difficult partners sometimes defy logic. While some partners may be blissfully unaware of the negative impact they have on those around them, some  almost seem to get satisfaction from being obstructive, creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity and strife and end up wasting a heck of a lot of leadership and management time.

Bradberry  (author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0) makes two important points:

  1. to deal with difficult people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can eliminate and know what you can’t; and
  2. the important thing to remember when it comes to difficult partners, and the impact that they have on you and the firm, is that you are in control of far more than you realize.

Suggested steps:

Distance yourself emotionally and if necessary buy yourself some time

Difficult partners can drive you crazy because their behavior can be so irrational but smoothly layered in eloquent, intelligent sounding argument or point-taking.  Their behavior can truly go against reason and you have to ask yourself why you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked in?

The more irrational and out of line someone is, the easier it should be for you to distance yourself from them. In other words, don’t try beating them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions rationally, without emotion—only the facts. This can be difficult in the heat of the moment but if you think about it first, and plan to do it next time, you can ensure practice makes perfect.

Keeping this emotional distance requires emotional awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so. If you’re going to have to straighten them out, it’s better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it.

Set Boundaries

This is the area where leaders and managers tend to sell themselves short; because they are dealing with a partner, they feel they have no way to control the issue  and sometimes avoid it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you’ve found your way to emotionally distance yourself from a person, you’ll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you don’t. You may even want to limit the number of interactions you have for a while, but certainly do not avoid contact or addressing the issue.

You can set limits, but you’ll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you could find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where you’ll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the challenges. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they no doubt will.

Talk About It

There’s nothing wrong with discussing a difficult person with a few trusted others in the firm, but the idea here is to use it as a means of moving forward and not just to complain. Its not a bad idea to share your plans as others can give you feedback and guidance as you pursue these steps. As independent outsiders they will be able to more easily see when your emotions are getting the better of you, and can help you to maintain a rational perspective. When it comes to boundaries, with luck you’re going to find these trusted others asking a lot of good “what if” questions to help you consider new ways to set boundaries. The quality of this feedback will depend on them getting some detail of what you are trying to accomplish in dealing with the difficult partner. If they don’t understand that you have a plan, they may just feed the problem by getting you riled up over how terrible it is that you’re once again stuck with such a difficult partner.

Bringing It All Together

Before you get this approach to work satisfactorily, you’re going to have to work on your own emotional intelligence and understand your own EQ. This is important as you will find yourself being tested by your difficult partners. A good way to do this is to undertake the emotional intelligence test that comes with the 2.0 book mentioned above. Then learn the strategies that can help you avoid getting blind-sided by things that are not your emotional intelligence strengths.

Also consider these three additional strategies from the book which can be helpful in dealing with difficult people:

Self-Management Strategy #9 – taking control of your self-talk:

  • we apparently have about 50,000 thoughts per day and there is a strong relationship between what we think (our self-talk) and how we feel, both physically and emotionally. We can take this into discussions.
  • for this reason it is important to carefully manage our self-talk, particularly if it becomes negative as this can send you into a downward emotional spiral that makes it challenging to deal with difficult partners.
  • when a rush of emotion comes over you (like when dealing with a difficult partner), your thoughts turn the heat up or down. By learning to control your self-talk, you can keep yourself focused on the right thoughts and manage your emotions more effectively.

Social Awareness Strategy #11 – practice the art of listening:

  • listening is an important social skill to master so you can deal with difficult partners.
  • it is not just about hearing words but also about tone, what is not being said, and any hidden messages.
  • for instance, practice stopping everything else you are doing or thinking about and listen fully till the other person has finished speaking. Focus, listen and stay in the present moment. By doing this you are also showing the other person respect.

Self-Management Strategy #4 – count to ten

  • according to Bradberry this is one of the most effective (and I would guess, simple) strategies for turning down the temperature when emotions start to run hot.
  • you will probably won’t even have to get to 10 but if you start the counting you will have cooled down and given your rational side time to catch up with your emotions.

I have focused on dealing with difficult partners in the last three posts as this is a challenge for most law firm leaders and senior managers. It is something we need to be able to do as effectively as we possibly can. I hope the tips on what not to do, what to do and the above pointers in regard to your own emotional intelligence quotients and strategies have provided you with a useful framework.  I would welcome any further thoughts or experiences you may wish to share.

all the best, Sean, Edge International.