The Effective EA: Easing the Way with Difficult People
tl;dr: Dealing with difficult people is a fact of life in virtually any job, but it can be a major challenge for executive assistants.
Some people are just naturally easier to work with than others. Even co-workers who are usually congenial can lose their charm if they’re having a bad day. (True for all of us, isn’t it?)
Dealing with difficult people is a fact of life in virtually any job, but it can be a major challenge for executive assistants. You have to deal with everyone.
As EA, you work for your boss – likely the CEO, or maybe multiple C-suiters.
You also represent your boss(es) to others, serving as a buffer or stand-in for them with both internal and external players. You have to treat everyone with respect even if they’re a pain in the workplace.
But you’re an important person, too.
Psychology Today says, “Believe it or not, you can stay calm, defuse conflict, and keep your dignity.” They should know, since dealing with difficult people is all about psychology.
Mastering the art of dealing with difficult people isn’t easy, but there are a lot of things you can do to ease the situation. With time and consistent response, you can even transform them. Well, some of them.
Different styles of “difficult”
Co-workers can show their difficult side in a number of ways.
They’re pushy. They criticize. They resist your requests for help, even though they expect you to help them. They disrespect your time and schedule and workload. They don’t want to listen to your point of view. They’re just plain ornery and rude.
You’ve met all these people, haven’t you? Some of them are repeat offenders, especially if they’ve learned over time that their bad behavior helps them get what they want.
We want you to get what you want and need so you can be the exceptional EA your boss expects and we know you are.
How you address the situation depends at least to some extent on the specific circumstances, as well as the person.
So you have to think strategically. Having a good repertoire of response options in your back pocket will enable you to make the best of things.
What do you want to achieve?
Do you need something – to make a point, or get some help with a last minute project – from someone who is being recalcitrant? Maybe you just want someone who is interrupting you to go away.
What’s their problem?
Or, put in a nicer way, what do they want to achieve (or avoid)?
Reflecting someone’s negative demeanor or language, or instantly pushing back with irritation will only make things worse. So do not respond in kind, try to put yourself in their position instead.
Taking the high road underscores your presence as a professional colleague who deserves respect and respects others. Deep breathing will help you feel and act calm.
The single most effective way to defuse anger, and make a new friend for that matter, is to listen.
Ask questions, if need be, to understand why they are unhappy or why they need your assistance. Use your active listening skills and “listening” body language, such as tilting your head slightly and nodding. Make eye contact, and watch your facial expressions.
If you cannot resolve their problem for whatever reason, you can at least sympathize. Listen for ways you might help them get what they need.
Look for common ground
If someone is habitually critical or rude to you, ask if you can have a talk, perhaps over coffee.
Ask why they have negative feelings toward you, letting them know your goal is an improved relationship. They may not even realize how they come across, or they may be reacting to factors that have nothing to do with you or even the workplace.
Sometimes people aren’t overly abrasive, they just seem cold. See if you can warm up the working relationship by finding something personal you have in common. A favorite sport or team. Dogs. You both have kids in third grade. You both love to travel!
You could make a new friend, but at the very least your working situation will improve because people are naturally more accepting and willing to help people they know and like.
Familiarity breeds appreciation, not contempt.
Ease the pain for everyone
EAs who are responsible for corporate travel can run into all sorts of difficulties when travelers and internal stakeholders run up against cumbersome policies and procedures.
You can erase a significant portion of travel-related difficulty simply by recommending that your company invest in top-rated corporate travel management technology.
Learn to say no.
You are a vital cog in the corporate wheel, and your time is valuable.
Just because you are the executive assistant doesn’t mean you are everyone’s assistant. Learning these techniques to deal with difficult people can benefit you at work but also in off-time dealings with family members, friends and anyone else.
Above all, keep in mind this advice from the American Management Association. “Your #1 responsibility is to keep yourself happy. Not everyone at work will like you, especially if you are a young, ambitious employee willing to do dirty work that other employees are not. It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better to be respected.”