How To Learn From ‘Difficult’ People

Nobody likes dealing with difficult people. But what if you could turn that ‘difficult’ person into a blessing, by learning from them? It can be done!

There’s a couple of frames I want to put around this before we start.

One is that if an objective observer were to ask the person that you’re having trouble with “Who is the difficult one in this relationship?” they would probably say it was you.

Also, you may have noticed that the people who have the most trouble with working relationships often behave in ways that others find difficult.

Everyone else can see that they are contributing to their problems by behaving in that way, but they can’t.

It’s as if they aren’t learning anything from the interactions they have with people. If they learned what they needed to learn, they would change the way they interacted, making other people more likely to behave in a way that they wanted.

The other frame to keep in mind is the NLP presupposition that “Behind every behaviour is a positive intention”.

As will all NLP presuppositions, we don’t care if it’s ultimately true. We are concerned with its usefulness; will acting as if it’s true get us the results we want?

Let’s get started.

It’s fairly easy to accept that every person, no matter what they do or how obnoxious their behaviour seems, is acting from a positive intention towards themselves.

This belief helps us to understand them and to let go of any anger or resentment we may feel towards them. Imagining ourselves in their shoes can also be helpful.

But what would life be like if you believed that your aggressive customer, or nagging spouse, or a motorist who cuts you up, actually did have a positive intention behind their behaviour – not just for themselves, but towards you?

Just like NLP presuppositions, beliefs don’t have to be true – they just have to be useful (having said that, they may stop being useful if they consistently contradict your experience, or are so incompatible with ‘shared reality’ that they interfere with your rapport with the people around you).

So let’s see what happens if we take on that belief for a moment, just as a thought experiment.

What would life be like if you believed that the positive intention of the inconsiderate motorist was to help you to learn to be a calmer driver? Would you be more likely to feel better and be more in control of the situation if you had that belief?

What if the positive intention of the universe (if you will) behind sending you that aggressive customer was so that you could learn courage? And the positive intention of the nagging spouse was to teach you to see things from the other person’s perspective?

What if your whole life was a ‘virtual reality interactive training package’? So that everything that happens to you is designed to teach you something.

If you don’t learn what you need to learn from a challenge the first time, life will go on presenting you with that challenge in different forms until you do learn what needs to be learned and can move on to the next learning. Would that be a useful belief to help you to learn from experience?

Use this process next time you encounter a person you find ‘difficult’:

First, ask yourself: What is the positive intention behind their behaviour? Put yourself in their shoes and see things from their point of view (NB don’t do this with seriously disturbed people). See yourself briefly through their eyes. What do you learn from this different viewpoint?

Now, ask yourself: If that person’s behaviour had a positive intention towards you behind it, what would that positive intention be? What positive lessons do you need to learn from your interaction with that person?

We often project qualities or characteristics we dislike onto another person. As you are responding to your internal representation of the person, rather than the person themselves, guess where the annoying characteristic really is? Within you.  So it can be useful, if sometimes uncomfortable, to add a fourth step to the process:

Finally, ask yourself: How am I like that person? When do I behave like that?

Note: as far as I can remember, this exercise is based on a session led by Sue Knight at the old London NLP Group about 25 years ago

© 2021, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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