We’ve all experienced them. We can’t get along with everyone, right? Difficult relationships can be stressful, frustrating and exhausting. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Unfortunately, there’s really no way to run a business or be a leader or work with people without encountering some difficult relationships. With a few simple tools, though, you can learn to minimize the roller coaster ride dealing with these challenges. You can learn to manage your own reactions in ways that put people at ease and diffuse frustrating situations rather than allowing them to escalate into bigger problems. Here are 4 steps which will help you handle these challenging situations in your professional life.

  1. Realize You’re On the Same Team. Whether the person you are having issues with is a customer, coworker, peer, or friend, recognize that the issue is the problem, not the person. You can’t control another person’s reaction or perception of the situation, but you can definitely control yours. Take a deep breath and change your focus: be on the same “team” with the person. Try to understand their point of view. Tackle the problem with them, not because of them.
  2. Focus on the Issue. Some people may have difficulty communicating or express themselves in a way you would like them to. Instead of reacting to the way a person delivers information, try to focus on the information itself. What is the actual problem? Try using reflective listening, and restate the problem back to the person. “What I hear you saying is, you’re upset about this…” or “It sounds like you’re bothered by what happened when…”.
  3. Validate the Person’s Feelings. You may not agree with someone, but empathy will go a long way toward mending a breach between business and customer or leader and team member. Take time to really listen to the complaint the person is sharing with you. Don’t interrupt. Be conscious of your body language– make sure your shoulders are open, arms not crossed, your body and face toward the person. Make eye contact. Nod to show you are paying attention and understand what’s being said. Say something like, “I’m sorry this experience has made you feel frustrated.” Let the person know that their feelings matter. You don’t have to agree with the way they behaved or the solution they’re asking for. Simply acknowledge how they’re feeling.
  4. Shift the Conversation Toward the Outcome. Once you’ve listened and validated the person’s feelings, you can begin to shift the conversation away from the problem and focus on the solution. Do this gently but firmly. Sometimes people get stuck in a loop, restating and restating the problem and exacerbating all the negative emotions associated with it. Draw them toward the solution with statements like, “I can tell this is really bothering you. Let’s talk about what we can do to solve the issue.”

Sometimes the person wants an impossible solution which you’re not able to provide. What you can do instead is focus on one actionable part of the complaint and offer a solution that is possible. You can acknowledge that it doesn’t address all of the issues at hand, but it’s a step toward a solution that can be taken immediately.

As you practice these 4 steps, you’ll get more comfortable with them and better at executing them smoothly. Being able to handle difficult relationships is a huge asset to a leader. Learning to manage these situations will help you create a cohesive, results-oriented team who trust your judgment and faithfully follow your leadership.

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