I have a tendency to point the finger when things get tough at work. When a project goes sideways, I immediately assume it couldn’t be me, it must be them. I label situations and (more often) people as “difficult” when a bit of extra effort is required. That label makes working with those people feel like a burden — it frames my attitude and, if I let it, affects my willingness to collaborate.

What I often discover with the benefit of hindsight, though, is what seemed difficult was, in fact, an opportunity. Working with (or around) difficult people means learning from difficult people — all it takes is a shift in mindset.

It’s human nature to avoid difficulty – including difficult people. But what if we view those challenges as gifts instead of burdens? What if we realized our part in making the situation difficult and the roadblocks we create when we label the other as difficult? What if we faced these situations with a sense of optimism and chose to learn from them instead of getting frustrated by them?

“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.” Michelle Obama

Truth be told, in my professional life, I’ve learned much more from “difficult” co-workers than the easy ones. Sure, the situations that felt difficult took more time, effort, and energy, but they yielded lessons I might otherwise not have learned.

Learning from Difficult People

People I label as “difficult” force me to grow, learn, adapt and change. Here’s how.

Grow

When relationships are comfortable, we coast. We stick to the familiar. We enjoy the path of least resistance.

That’s not inherently bad, but it doesn’t typically yield progress or innovation.

I will never stop wishing that I could learn lessons through ice cream cones and puppy kisses. Unfortunately, for me, most of the lessons I’ve learned in life are the result of a metaphorical (and sometimes actual) fall on my face. It takes a little bit of conflict to move me forward. That’s where difficult people come in. They might be the concrete I hit when I fall or the rock I stumbled over that cause me to trip. Either way, they teach me something about myself and the way I do business.

Learn

Difficult people make us reconsider how we communicate our ideas. They force us to re-evaluate how we do business to better “sell” our philosophies. They compel us to revisit ideas we consider settled. When we do any of those things, we’re able to dive even more in-depth and understand our position even more thoroughly. If we have to pause our momentum to rephrase what we said, convince someone of our position, or re-litigate our case, it’s an opportunity to think it through again. We are given a chance to strengthen our position and feel more confident.

Adapt

Difficult people point out our errors and force us to reconsider and change direction.

And those are the most difficult of the difficult people from my point of view! Those darn folks who are more right than I am are so frustrating. How dare they point out a flaw in my position? How dare they force me to reconsider my plan? Adapting to accommodate suggestions from others is humbling. Adjusting my game plan or revising my strategy stings for a minute. Ultimately though, if the outcome is successful, it’s worth the discomfort.

Change For the Better

Since it’s impossible to expect others to change, difficult people provide us with the opportunity to improve ourselves or our situation. Maybe that means developing patience. Perhaps that means seeing the situation from another point of view. Maybe that means creative problem-solving. Or maybe that means finding the next professional opportunity. Whatever kind of “difficult” person you face, I suspect there’s a change you could make that would make dealing with him/her less challenging.

It’s easy to label someone “difficult.” It’s tough to admit we might be contributing to the difficulty. But when we refuse to see the part we play, we put a roadblock in our path. Working with difficult people forces us to re-examine our habits, processes, or beliefs. And it is always an opportunity to learn.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
When a co-worker is challenging, complex, or selfish it's challenging. Rather than letting it frustrate us, we can celebrate learning from difficult people.

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