I have been thinking and talking to many of you lately about how it is increasingly hard to handle difficult people – the angry resident, the frustrated or volatile board member, the toxic employee, what have you. Perhaps this is due to the Pandemic, in which all of the fun parts of our jobs are out the window. Perhaps our immunity to hostility simply weakens over time. (Seriously, is any one of you able to go five minutes without talking about immunity?) When I was considering taking the job I have now, almost twenty years ago, I asked my husband for his thoughts. He told me he would support any choice I made, but that I was not going to grow thicker skin. So true. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening.
I turned to my friend and resiliency guru Jon Wortmann for his sage advice. His wisdom included maintaining the best attitude, being exceptionally prepared, using every encounter as a growth opportunity, and worst of all, considering compassion. You will have to ask him for details, but suffice it to say my initial reaction was “Um, no. I don’t want to learn and grow, I want to complain.”
So, for fun, I started creating my own coping mechanisms. Because we are all on digital meeting platforms all day, every day – usually alone at home or in our offices – we have the luxury of beginning any meeting with the words “Shields Up!’ As virtually everyone must know, these shields provide limited protection for ships against damage and enemy attack. I’ll take some limited protection. I can start any meeting picturing Captain Kirk, Ms. Uhura, and Mr. Sulu readying my laptop for battle. Also, apparently you can get a Zoom background displaying the bridge of the Enterprise. You’re welcome.
A colleague of mine in Texas once shared her strategy. Everything is bigger than life in Texas, right? Are the difficult people even more difficult? In any event, she imagines her detractors throwing beachballs at her. Rather than throwing them back, she catches them and gently puts them down. I can picture her in a meeting that slowly begins to fill up with beach balls. However, this may be too closely related to the loving kindness method Jon recommended. Moving on.
What is actually working, however, is visualization. I took up a 21 day meditation challenge in January, actually completing most of the days. I found it so valuable I took advantage of the offer to reactivate my app for the year. Of course I haven’t been back, but it is on my to-do list every single day, which sort of counts. In one amazing guided meditation, the teacher asked us to picture ourselves in a difficult encounter. And then to imagine someone we greatly admire standing next to us. And then to picture another, and another, and so on. This is incredibly powerful. I have a large group of fellow managers in Massachusetts and around the country who I can conjure at a moment’s notice. When I am in a tough spot I can picture them behind me. I know I can do anything, meet any challenge, and stand up for those who need me with my Unstoppable Squad behind me.
So back to Jon Wortmann’s advice – I really am taking it, because I do believe there are ways to keep growing through adversity. I’ll share one more thought he gave me. If you have been in your career, or even in the same position for a long time, you do hold some cards. You can push back, even if just a little, if circumstances require. When will you use your cards? They will be useless when you retire. For me the answer is clear – when needed to support the team. Every time.
How about you? Do you have a tried and true coping mechanism? Do you create Zoom backgrounds that are secret jokes? Is your immunity to difficult people weakening? Do you remember the washing machine episode on the Brady Bunch?
Let’s practice. Phasers on Stun.