Tango by Brendan Lally

Last week, I started this whole discussion of dealing with the “difficult” people in our work-lives. We all have people who we find difficult. And we all have vulnerabilities in dealing with them.

The point was made that our best and fastest way to get better results is to change our own dance with that person.  Of course, you have to realize that you are in a dance, that you have a natural way of moving and so does that person—the differences are what make the dancing difficult. These posts are in support of my interview series with Dr. Herbert Rappaport that starts March 5th.

As I think about the people who are most difficult for me, I can quickly isolate the person who comes on strong or tough, unrelenting and unforgiving—resisting or ignoring a logical dialogue—unquestioning.

When I work with clients on their personal leadership model, one of the potential elements is the notion for being caring-but-demanding. I have, for some time now, shared that I can improve my leadership by being more demanding. Not uncaring. Not dictatorial. Rather a good blend of caring and demanding. It is time to work on the demand-side of my dance step.

So what are my steps in the dance? First, I take a step back or retreat for a time. So, if I back away, what happens? Right, the person comes forward more strongly. Second, a set of comfortable steps for me would be to debate with logic. With an unrelenting person, I get flustered or angry and show those emotions—flowing with that person’s natural dance—and losing my power.

Modifying my natural dance is not comfortable. Like shifting from the waltz to an unfamiliar tango with radical changes in movement, footing, and pacing.

What keeps me in their dance? Different things, depending on the relationship. Sometimes, I am afraid of the repercussions—the person might dismiss me. Other times, I want harmony. And still others, I don’t even see the dance, partly because I am not struggling for any particular outcome.

Not that I don’t have difficult clients from time to time, but the most important person for my development now is not a client, but my teenage son. I’m sure there will be benefits on the client side as a result.

With my son, it’s complicated. I have the power of being his mother, yet can’t make him do anything—really. I often come forward with words, logic, and feelings. But, I don’t always levy or hold on an expected consequence. For me, it’s so easy to get hung up in the debate of “no other mother…” or swing into simply wanting to keep the peace.

As he rails over the rules in our house that “no one else has,” I have turned to a strength—my ability to lay out my expectations clearly. Then, I’ve added some new uncomfortable moves that now have him out of step (a bit) including: 1) standing strong in the consequences, not budging an inch in the face of his charming smile, or wearing down with one more “Why?” 2) withholding privileges until he shows the right footsteps in return. If you are a parent, you might be saying “of course, you have to do that.” And, it’s not that I haven’t held him accountable; somehow now it is more difficult for me to find that right balance, to stick to my guns. It’s a different dance.

As I stay in my new steps, I see him paying attention, realizing he can do the dance I am asking for. He tries a few steps, then reverts back, then a few new steps again, as I stay in a new demanding-but-caring tango.

While it makes me feel a little vulnerable to be talking about my son, it’s really about me. And, I think sharing about a real situation is always better. In reflection, are there similarities with or other insights for your difficult boss, peer, client, etc.? Don’t others always see what we need to do as somehow easier than it is for us?

Our assignment of someone as “difficult,” by the way, does not mean that we don’t have respect, appreciation, commitment, and caring for that person. It’s the difficult dance that doesn’t get the best outcome in the relationship that we’re taking about.

What dance are you doing that continues to create difficulty for you? What gives you power in that relationship, or not? What future dance would you like to be doing? How would you have to change your step?

Next week at 12:00 noon EST, I will be interviewing Dr. Herbert Rappaport, PhD, and we will be diving into this body of work. Register for the live interview, and receive a recording (in case your schedule changes). The cost is $27.00.