Wednesday, 27 September 2017

How To Deal With A Maddening Professional






The scenario:


My first lecture to a new group of 86 professionals in an executive MBA programme.




"Breathe…” I coax myself as I rid my face of a scowl that is slowing materializing. I look at the source of my irritation.




The offender, Ms. X, whose fixed gaze is an iota short of a glare, continues in a voice that’s resigned to see our clash to the bitter end.



"Excuse me", she mouths in a tone that stills the rest of the discussion in class, "I wasn't finished".



I take another deep breath. I then graciously apologise and wait for her to make her point. This she does in a succinct manner, devoid of any ambiguity.





My inner communicator commends her for an articulate, concise argument, despite her defensive body language and cold gaze.





Not the most likeable individual but one with a sharp mind, I note distractedly.




As I remind myself to breathe steadily and to keep my tone pleasant, I realise that handling this difficult professional would be important to how I'm perceived by the rest of the group—a set comprising 85+ executives in a packed lecture room—given that I would be required to have one-on-one coaching sessions with them at a later date.





Knowing what is at stake, I approach Ms. X. Stopping a respectable distance from her seat, I wait for a few seconds after she stops talking and ask in an even tone:




"Ok. Have you finished?"



"Yes", she sniffs, as her colleagues turn their gazes back to me.




I nod.




"That's an interesting point that Ms. X has made..." I  declare as I return to the center of the room to proceed with the lecture.



The rest of the session goes smoothly with participants engaging in an interesting debate and asking questions...



After that session, I reflected on the lecture. I had been warned that the executive batches usually consist of professionals with at least a decade of experience. In that set, most held managerial positions and many were older than me. I realised that I'd need to use a more collaborative approach to develop rapport. I also knew that their collective experience and intellect meant that I'd learn from them as the sessions became livelier.









I however noted that I'd need considerable patience dealing with Ms. X in the future.



And I was right.




A few months later, Ms. X attended her mandatory one-on-one session with me. It quickly became a tense episode. At some point, she declared in a frustrated voice that I wasn't listening to her. In response, I regrettably quipped that she was being defensive - a remark she didn't appreciate. She then made a comment that reminded me of my role as a communications coach.


She calmly explained that if I were to help her in the writing task, then I needed to understand her point of view so that I could advise on how best she could write the content for the reader to understand.


And that was the turning point.



We proceeded to dissect her piece sentence by sentence, and each time, I asked her to explain to me in the simplest terms what she wanted to say. Once I understood what she wanted to express in writing, I was able to advise on sentence structure, grammar, language, etc. to ensure that the content made sense and that her thoughts translated to a coherent document.




I also came to accept the fact that her personality was hers alone. I reckoned that although she needed some solid interpersonal skills and a good dose of emotional intelligence to be able to influence positive outcomes, it wasn't my job to change her character.



Nonetheless, I did wonder how far she'd go in her career if she continued to be abrasive, curt or disagreeable.


That was when I decided to 'insulate' myself against her anticipated criticisms. So when in another lecture some months later, she interrupted me to complain that I changed the details of a question I had asked all participants to answer, I wasn't offended. In fact, I acknowledged that indeed, I had added some complexity to the scenario to be discussed for more engaging discussions. I made no apologies for doing so.



In another session, she grumbled about not having the time to read the question that was distributed prior to the exam. In response, I handed her a printed copy of the question. Later, she whined about how she didn’t know what to do. I simply smiled. She finally settled down to write the exam. Ironically, she scored the second highest grade in that assessment.



Ms. X nevertheless taught me a few lessons that I'd henceforth use whenever dealing with a vexatious professional:




1) "Seek to understand, then to be understood".










As a speaker, coach, presenter, leader or in whatever role you find yourself, before any event, prepare for a sharp disagreement with your client or a member of the audience.


Some disagreements might not be civil. In fact, you might perceive them as personal attacks.



Resist the natural instinct to defend yourself. First, listen to what isn't being said. Behind that rude statement, grating voice or infuriating whining lies exasperation.


The offender  challenges you at every turn because he either doesn't understand the concept, or he requires more convincing. There may also be myriad reasons he has for being difficult which you're not privy to.


So look beyond whatever unpleasantness displayed and ask the simplest question so that you understand what he wants to know. Until you attempt to address the offender's concerns, you won't solve the problem.


Charm won't do it, nor will some battle of wits.




Get to the root of the problem and try to fix it. Provide context, facts and/or offer more information privately. You may or may not disarm your 'opponent' with this approach but your credibility will survive the onslaught.




And if you're wrong, admit your error, state that you're happy to learn something new and move on.



We all make mistakes. Only a fool thinks he can be right all of the time.




2) Keep your cool






Irksome people could turn a speech, presentation, lecture or an address into a disaster...if you allow them.



Preempt a verbal offensive by convincing yourself that despite whatever attack you'd face, that you won't react emotionally. This is because annoyance or distress clouds our judgement. Even the most learned among us will struggle to give an intelligent response in that state.




Whether or not the offender is the devil's spawn is irrelevant. If you cannot keep your cool, you'd lose your hard-earned reputation before the session ends. 





On the other hand, keeping a rein on your emotions allows you to be clear-headed enough to de-escalate the situation by asking the right questions so you can offer solutions.





If, despite your efforts, the offender refuses to co-operate, then “agree to disagree” and change the subject.





It will become evident to all present that he is the problem, not you.



You can't always win them all.



Conclusion


So I'm actually grateful to Ms. X for teaching me how to deal with a maddening professional. As a result, I'm better equipped to handle opposition.



I’ve also realised that being able to dispassionately address a volatile situation to try to find common ground, is important when dealing with conflict.



Thus, the best I can do in any testing situation is first to be open to different viewpoints. Although difficult, I should endeavour to understand other perspectives. By being open to new reasoning, I'd expand my cognitive abilities and learn new things.




Next, I should strive to keep my emotions in check when fielding off biased assumptions or deliberate digs at my credibility. I'd aim to deal with the root of the problem and I'd disregard the unpleasant symptoms.


If all else fails, I'd move on with quiet contentment that I did all I could.



And I'd live to do it again another day.


Over to you:

How did you handle a maddening professional? What did you learn from the experience?


Kindly post your comments below.


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N.B:  
First image is courtesy of Iosphere, at freedigitalphotos.net. Second, fourth and fifth images are courtesy of Stuart Miles, at freedigitalphotos.net. Third image is courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, at freedigitalphotos.net.