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Don't let your preconceived ideas about people get in the way of a good thing

· Listening,Leadership,Coaching

No one likes to deal with difficult people- the demanding, the aggressive, the rude. The reality however, is they’re out there, and at some point you’re probably going to have to do business with a few of them.

Alison (not her real name) is a marketing manager for a pharmaceutical company. Experienced, but new to her role, she’d been directed to my coaching couch by her company as part of their general personal development programme. But when she arrived for her first session there was one thing clearly weighing on her mind — a difficult customer.

Alison had been warned at the outset by her colleagues to be wary of this customer, a retail buyer who had a reputation for being aggressive and demanding of suppliers. Aware she was going to find things difficult, Alison would carefully over-prepare for her meetings with the customer, ready to defend herself with all the information she could gather and hoping a clear agenda would keep things focused. Despite her best efforts and persisting with the buyer, the reception Alison continued to receive was cool and sometimes harsh.

By the time Alison came to me she was feeling insecure and despondent. “What am I doing wrong?” she wanted to know. “Why doesn’t my client like me?”

So I asked her to describe her feelings about the customer. Rude, cold, difficult and hard work were some of the words she produced. Alison also said that while on some days the client seemed to be in a better mood than others, this was adding to her anxiety because the behaviour was unpredictable.

As I’ve discussed before in this blog, I firmly believe that our thoughts create our experience, and it seemed this was a case in point. Alison had built up a picture in her head about this customer before they even met, based on her colleagues’ comments.

I once carried out an exercise in a training session where I asked the participants to describe different people based on a few short written statements. From a brief statement like ‘this person is grumpy and hard to work with’ the participants were able to come up with creative and detailed descriptions of that person’s character, background and even appearance.

But I then asked the participants, ‘what are some of the other possibilities here? Maybe the person was rude because the were having a particularly bad day, maybe they were under serious pressure to perform; maybe things weren’t going well at home or with their health.’

What the exercise illustrates is just how common and easy it is to draw mental pictures in our heads, often based on a whole lot of assumptions, that we then neglect to question.

When I discussed this with Alison, she realised that not only had she prejudged the customer, but the negative mental picture she’d drawn had built to the stage where her thoughts had become cluttered with anxiety about what she was doing wrong. In reality, however, it was unlikely the customer’s moods and behaviour had anything to do with Alison or the job she was doing.

So Alison decided to make a fresh start. She made a conscious effort to suspend her judgement, go into the meetings with a clear head, and if she was greeted by a bad mood, not to be dragged down by it.

With a clearer head, she was able to act and respond more effectively in her meetings. If she turned up and the client was in a bad mood, instead of ploughing on regardless, Alison could focus on other strategies, like keeping the tone of the discussion light or keeping the meeting short.

On those days when the client was in a better frame of mind, Alison was able to really listen. Rather than slog through her own over-prepared agenda in an effort to retain control of the situation, she could have a more direct conversation — and that helped the relationship become a lot stronger. That not only made things easier, but was also good for business. As Alison discovered, being able to make a fresh start in your head every time you meet somebody is an incredibly powerful thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that keeping a clear head and suspending your judgement in situations means you’ll no longer come across difficult people. But it’s likely you’ll be able to make a bad experience less painful and possibly turn those okay meetings into something that’s actually positive. And knowing you haven’t participated in the negativity yourself means you’ll walk out of the meeting knowing you’ve done the best job that you could.