Watch the Interview
Handling Difficult People:
Dealing with People You Can’t Stand
with Kit Welchlin
- Grew up on a hog and dairy farm in southern Minnesota and began public speaking at the age of 9 in a 4-H public speaking contest.
- At age 21 he purchased his first manufacturing company and by age 26 served as C.E.O. and Chairman of the Board of 3 manufacturing companies in 3 states.
- Has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Speech Communication, Business Administration and Political Science.
- Received a Masters Degree in Speech Communication and Business Administration.
- In 1991, Kit started Welchlin Communication Strategies and Seminars On Stress, providing speeches and seminars, to private and public organizations.
- Kit taught part-time for 26 years for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, where he received the Teaching Excellence Award and had been repeatedly nominated as Outstanding Faculty.
- He is a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association and has earned the Certified Speaking Professional designation. In 2014, Kit was inducted into the Minnesota Speakers Association Hall of Fame.
- Recently Kit earned the Certified Virtual Presenter designation from eSpeakers.
- He has delivered more than 3,500 speeches and seminars to more than 500,000 people over the past 29 years.
It is estimated the 20 -21% of our population can be classified as difficult people. No matter where you go there will be at least one to deal with.
Difficult people look for your buttons. They don’t push your buttons; they punch them!
Conflict Resolution and Negotiation skills dictate your level of professionalism. Acquiring conflict resolution and negotiation skills strengthen your confidence and increase the likelihood that you will walk away from the bargaining session with satisfying outcomes.
- the techniques to gain cooperation
- the different types of difficult people
- the five stages in controlling your emotions and responding appropriately
- how to differentiate yourself from everyone else
Read the Interview
Hugh Ballou: This is Hugh Ballou. Welcome to this episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. We’re pushing seven years of this series of interviews with people who have something to share, who have been there, done it, who have experience, sometimes have the trophy, sometimes have the scars. Sometimes I’m introduced as a speaker as an expert. I used to shun that and say I am a student of leadership. I still am, but what gives me the status of an expert, probably because I’m older, is I have made more mistakes than anybody else. We call those learning opportunities. Our goal here is to help leaders in the trenches think differently, embrace some new concepts, and install some of those processes and ideas into the organization you lead. We’re talking specifically to those of you right now in this tough time leading a nonprofit or religious organization *audio issue* Think together about how we create not a new normal but a new radical. We have to do things radically different as we go forward.
I’m speaking with Kit Welchlin today. He is in Minnesota. Kit, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Tell people a little bit about yourself and this topic that you’re going to cover about difficult people. Why do you have a passion for this?
Kit Welchlin: Hugh, nice to talk with you this afternoon. I grew up on a hog and dairy farm in southern Minnesota. I was the youngest of four sons, no sisters. Communication skills were pretty important because I grew up in a position-centered family, not a person-centered family where everyone would have an equal say and an equal vote. No, there was a real hierarchy in the family. My dad had the most authority, then my mom, then it went from oldest to youngest. I was the youngest. What would happen around the dining room table is my dad would say something, then my mom would say something, then Cabot, Kelly, Cory, and then we would change the subject. I always had a hard time getting into the conversation. But in 4H, I could get up in front of a club once a month and give a five- or ten-minute speech without interruption, and I really haven’t stopped since.
Then I went to a state university about 45 miles down the road and became a college dropout. I left college after my junior year when a little manufacturing company came up for sale in my hometown. The reason the business went up for sale is because the gentleman who started the business in my hometown had already suffered a massive heart attack by 1983, so it looked like something I should get involved with. It was a stressful business. The presentation I had to deliver most often was STP: Stress, Time, and Procrastination Management. The topic we will be discussing today—handing difficult people—is my second most-requested topic. I don’t know if there was a correlation there or not, but I was in manufacturing. During that very same time, I was a trustee for a Presbyterian church for seven years.
Then I left the manufacturing company to go into the speaking business. I used to take my staff to Sioux Falls or Spencer, Iowa where Dale Carnegie was offering seminars. We always found we could go there for a few hours and learn information we could apply for a few years. I thought maybe I’m going to have a greater impact as an outsider than being a person inside my own organizations. I went back to school, finished my undergrad degree, picked up a Masters in Speech and Business. Since 1991, I have been running around trying to get people to work together better and have them get more done in less time with clear and concise communication.
I have delivered about 3,500 presentations over the last 29 years in a variety of different industry, be it for-profit or nonprofit. It’s been a fulfilling career. I have really enjoyed it. It’s nice to be here talking about this topic because sometimes people need just one more tool, method, approach to break a deadlock or repair a relationship that has been damaged through conflict.
Hugh: Sometimes it’s that one thing that pivots. I often say to my audiences that you may not like me, but if there’s one thing that stimulates your thoughts or helps you think differently, it’s been a successful time. You’ll laugh at this. I spent a career as a musical conductor with my back to my audience. In May 2007, I was on stage at a place called CEO Space and had to face the audience. I’m not sure if the person who put me there knew that or not, but I was talking about leadership and team building. The big screens, you have 500-600 people in the audience. It’s a lot easier than conducting but having to look at people is a whole new ball game. Your story about presenting, I have been lucky to be on stage with Jack Canfield and Les Brown and Jeff Magee, Dan Clark, who have all been guests on this show. We are just ordinary people doing our thing. Having a mindset performance is really important.
Let’s talk about leadership for just a minute before we talk about how we sometimes set up conflict. When I was at the conference helping people think about their presentations, it’s not only about the words—they are important—but research shows that words are only 7% of their communication. There’s 55% in here, and it’s the inflection and the rest of the stuff. As a presenter, one of my speaking coaches was a drama professor. We didn’t talk about content at all. We talked about where I would stand. As a leader, why is it important for us to have really good presentation skills?
Kit: I have a presentation called “Become a Leader People Would Like to Follow.” One of the things I cite is a study by Dr. David W. Johnson that talks about the six criteria of personal credibility: six things we need to put in place to be most effective on a daily basis with the people we work alongside.
One of them was to be consistently warm and friendly, to be approachable. If people have a question, they feel comfortable approaching you. You’re even-keeled, pleasant to be around.
The second is you express your intentions and motives, short-term plans, long-term goals so people know what you’re up to. It removes a lot of suspicion. That is critical when it comes to conflict resolution.
You follow through with what you said you’re going to do. Your trustworthiness. If you say you’re going to come at 10am and you stop by at 3pm…
You’re an information source. You have done some work and know some stuff: what’s pinned and pasted on the wall, the guidebooks, websites.
You have also developed a certain amount of relevant expertise that in certain areas of what you do, you know more about that than most people. Your employees, staff, or board seek you out for answers about those things because you’re the resident expert, the in-house expert. You know more about that than anybody else.
Last is you have dynamism, which is natural enthusiasm. Dynamism isn’t that you’re doing calisthenics and jumping jacks between meetings and phone calls. When you walk into a room, the lights get a little brighter than a little dimmer. When you come in to work, people are happy to see you rather than resenting that you showed up again today.
If we can start our day that way and embed those principles in our presentations, too, people will trust us. It’s what we say. It’s how we say it. If they know we have a history of following through with not making suggestions, this is something we can accomplish. If we project that dynamism, that natural enthusiasm, which comes from practice and preparation to make sure what we’re going through comes across in the right fashion, to be clear and concise, to make sure we fill in the blanks so people don’t fill it in with something else, it’d be hard for people not to want to rally behind that idea and to move the organization forward. There needs to be this framework in place in our conduct that when we pull in the parking lot, walk toward the building, walk into a meeting, and start presenting, it’s consistent and congruent. We do live up to our own reputation in a way.
Hugh: As leaders, we’re always presenting whether we know it or not. All of those things come to bear.
Kit: One of the constructs for communication that I share with many of my audiences is something I came across as the SEER Method of Communication. You make a statement, explain it, give an example, and restate it. It follows people’s natural train of thought. If you say something, then you’re not quite sure what it is or you’re wondering what that is. All of a sudden, I’m just casually explaining it, then you wonder how that work. But I give you a couple of examples, and then you’re wondering, what did you call that again? Then I restate what it was that I said. Instead of saying to people you work with, “This is very complicated. Let me simplify it for you,” nothing more demoralizing than that. Just simplify it for them.
That’s what we should do as a listener. If we have someone in a leadership position who says something to you and you’re not quite sure what it is, you should ask a “What?” question. We’ll get an explanation or a definition. If that isn’t enough, we ask a “How?” question because then we will get an example or a description of how the concept would play out or be implemented. Then ask if they can restate that. You call that “What?” again. Most of the time I find in committees or boards there are a couple of other people who aren’t quite sure either about what the leader is saying. If you have the courage or calmness to ask a casual question to fill in the blanks, it benefits everyone sitting around the table who will be affected by that decision.
Hugh: I’m probing the leadership side of it. We will get into your topic here, I promise. There is a lot that we do that really sets up a conflict situation. We’re talking about difficult people. We really need the conflict management skills to address it. It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of people and speak on a topic. It’s almost easier to speak to a group of 500 than it is to a group of five, I think, because a group of 500 will turn on you fast. The five will be more polite because you’re right in front of them.
Here is a pivot moment for me. Twice I had to follow Les Brown on stage. The mistake I made was being in the room when he was speaking. There was a break, so one particular time I was wearing my tails. I went on to talk about how a conductor knows about leadership. I grab the audience right away; it was supercharged. I am tying my white bow tie, and I’m like, “Man, I have to follow that? What am I going to do? I don’t know those kinds of jokes.” This is an authenticity moment for me. I looked in the mirror and said, “You’re going to be out there and be Hugh Ballou.”
Speak about the confidence of leaders. I see leaders even in groups who are doubting themselves, and they send confusing messages. There is an authenticity that we claim what we know. We also don’t know everything. How do we have the security piece that we can take this mantel of leadership and be effective communicators?
Kit: Being organized in our thoughts is critical. They always say the more organized the conversation, the more credibility you have in it. If we have planned our remarks carefully, and if we have those first sentences down pat of how we are going to start, one of the techniques I use is to deep breathe. This is also for a meeting or a phone call where I know there is going to be a lot of tension or conflict, and I will have to deal with someone who has been historically difficult to have a conversation with. I inhale five, hold 15, exhale slowly for 10, and repeat four times. That takes two minutes. It’s magical because it gives the heart an opportunity to pump the blood through the system twice. Oxygenated blood is fuel for the brain. You’ve just gone from unlighted gas to jet fuel. You’re quicker thinking. You’re more articulate. You have more vocabulary available to you and a quicker wit.
The other thing it does is it expands your lung capacity to nearly 80%. It gives you a short-term benefit of being a long-distance runner. You don’t have to do all that running. It expands your lung capacity to the point it lowers the pitch of your voice, softens the tone of your voice, and you sound warm and cooperative even if you’re not. It also provides a tremendous reservoir of oxygen coming through your vocal cords so that it takes the quiver or any hesitancy out of your voice.
That is a great run-through in my mind. I know what I am going to say in the order I am going to say it. I am doing the deep breathing. By the time I get to the front of the room, everything is in place. Choreographing those five minutes before you present.
Hugh: That is what a singer does. There is the warmup and the articulator exercises. My drama coach taught me all of those things. It’s the same routine as a singer uses to warm up: the stretching and the breathing. Good advice.
Sometimes with our teams, there are people who have a difference of opinion. I know it’s hard to believe, but people are unafraid to challenge things. What you started to talk about earlier is the centrality of what we teach at SynerVision. We’re social entrepreneurs who are running a for-purpose business with a lot of rules because we’re tax-exempt. The centrality of our leadership is in that document, the strategic plan, which is like the musical score for a conductor. Everything that happens is written down. Everyone playing or singing has their part. The analogy I teach is you have a piece of paper which is your strategic plan; it’s only a piece of paper. As the leader, you’re the one who integrates it into performance. There is a big gap there.
Your big point is such a huge piece of this, being clear, being concise. I would think that clear is also precise. Leaders are really good at defining the specific outcomes they want, so we leave people confused. To me, part of the work that goes into planning strategy is you have specific long-term objectives and short-term goals. Then the team can rally around their part of that. Talk about how either that sets up conflict or prevents it—well, we can’t really prevent it because it’s a sign of energy, but we can certainly lower the amount of bad conflict, can’t we? How do we prevent doing that as leaders? If there is confusion, how do we address it?
Kit: Those are great questions. I will try to pick them off one at a time. You mentioned the word “precision.” I always like leaders to be accurate in the words they choose to use. Are you happy? Are you thrilled? Are you worried? Are you concerned? One time, I read a book that claims there are 3,400 words in the English language for feelings and emotions. Dr. Robert Lakoff says however many emotions they have, men list an average of eight. Women listed an average of 14, which is 11 words out of the average we use to describe a different 3,400 feelings and emotions. We want accuracy in the words we choose to use to set the right tone.
I also believe we should use simple words so that everyone feels comfortable and can understand. If a longer, less familiar word can be substituted with a shorter, more familiar word, we want to do that. I don’t think we impress people with a large vocabulary; we can drive people away. People would rather feel informed than ignorant. I grew up ignorant so it doesn’t bother me. People use a great big word and I ask how to spell it and what it means. Most people aren’t as confident with their ignorance as I am. They have a thin skin, so they might think you are talking down to them.
I also want to provide coherence. There are three things I’m going to talk about: this, this, and this. Also, language intensity is critical. We can talk about leaders. We can talk about coaches. We can talk about mentors. We can talk about managers or supervisors. We can talk about negative intensity like the boss or the brass. Same positions, same people. Nothing has changed except the language we use to describe that.
One of the things that makes conflict uncomfortable is the word itself. If we use a more neutral term like a variety of different opinions or a variety of different perspectives or different insights I would like us to share, if we say to the people in our group, “Let’s alter-cast ourselves into the different people who will be affected by this decision.” If I was a parishioner, how would I feel? If I was a chamber of commerce in town, how would I feel? If I was a small businessperson, whoever is going to be affected by the issue, see if we can see it from that perspective. If we change conflict to disagreement or difference of opinion or a more neutral term, it takes some of the sting out of it.
If we are going to have 7% of the impact, is it the words we choose to use? You’re running a multi-million-dollar organization. That’s a $70,000 account. Somebody would notice if the money is missing. People notice it in conversation, too. When we’re on the phone, 20% of the impact is what we say. 80% is how we say it. You have to warm up the pipes before you make or take that phone call. When we commit things to writing, that is 100%. That is why people try to read between the lines to figure out what we meant in what we wrote.
The other thing I want leaders to keep in mind is we all have four intentions when we come to work. We will get things done. We want to do it well. Since we spend so much time together, it’d sure be nice if we get along. When we do good work, it sure is nice to hear appreciation. If those intentions aren’t fulfilled, then people exaggerate their behavior to get something else.
If people want something done and fear it won’t get done, they become controlling. When people fear something will get done wrong, they become perfectionistic. When people want to get along but feel left out, they will exaggerate their behavior to be more approval-seeking, do all personal favors but not get their work done. When someone doesn’t hear appreciation for what they were doing, they will exaggerate their behavior to get some attention or they will go silent to get some attention because they didn’t feel the appreciation. They turn into people we can’t stand.
I always ask leaders to make sure we touch all four bases be it through a phone call, face-to-face conversation, or email that we’re going to get this done, we’re going to get it done right, we get along, and I appreciate you. Just yesterday, I was delivering a presentation called “Leadership Excellence” that was sponsored by a community technical college north of town. I said, “It would be this simple to simply say to the person who hired me, ‘Amanda, we started and ended on time.’” We got it done. “I thought it went pretty well.” So we got it done right. “I sure enjoyed working with you.” We got along. “I look forward to seeing you next Monday for a session, too.” How long does it take to say those four things? If I timed it, it would be about six seconds. If you had 50 phone calls in a day or 50 interactions in a day, it would take only five minutes out of your day to sprinkle that magic pixie dust. If you don’t do that, you will spend the other nine hours and 55 minutes dealing with people who have become controlling, perfectionistic, approval-seeking, and demanding attention, which is exhausting. Those are the kinds of things I suggest to leaders to get really clear on what it is you are sharing with the people you’re leading.
Hugh: I think you just did that.
Kit: Usually one of those two intentions aren’t being fulfilled. They can become a tank when they are controlling. You picture them as a tank bombarding you down the hallway. If you are dealing with a tank, you say, “I want to get it done, too. This is how I’m approaching it.” With a tank, you don’t say “some of us were talking” because they will ask who. If you say “maybe,” they will say, “Maybe?” There’s no such thing as maybe to a tank. You either do or you don’t. You speak in “I” language. I will, I am going to, I have. They will respect you. They will think everyone else is a fool, but they will respect you if you take personal responsibility.
But if you’re dealing with a know-it-all who wants to get it done—they know how to get it done and have been getting it done for years—then you have to know your stuff to ask good questions. Are you concerned we’re going to run out of time or money? Present your ideas indirectly. “Perhaps we can do this or maybe we can do that.” Always compliment them and say, “You seem to know more about this than anyone else I work with.” They will just love you.
Then again, you have people who are snipers who want to control you by offhand comments or saying things that shred your self-esteem. One of the things you can do is stop and slowly turn to them and say, “What did you say?” Ask them to repeat the insult. Sometimes they won’t. Or point out how ridiculous their comment is by saying, “What does that have to do with this?” Or you can brush it off and move forward. If they do say something about you to other people, next time you see them, say, “I heard you said this about me to so-and-so. Is that actually true? If there is a problem in our relationship, I’d love to talk to you one-on-one so we can get along.” They will go pick on somebody else. Or they might stop that behavior, which is rare.
Hugh: You mentioned respect. That kind of went by. I think it’s more important. We deal with how we want people to like us. I’m not going to challenge people because they might not like me. What you just outlined is you make principle-based decisions. You respond based on the principle. Then people would respect you because if you cave in or do something you think they want you to do, they won’t like you or respect you in the end.
Kit: That’s a great point, yes. As a leader, I’d rather be respected than liked, but I think people like a leader they respect. I think it is a dance. I think you create one by being principled in your decisions or the way you approach that conversation. You can always agree on the principles. I have this module that I include on responding non-defensively to criticism. One of those is you can agree on the principle. “You’re right. I do work longer hours than other people, and it probably is unhealthy. This is important work.” So you reinforce what you’re doing is extremely important. “You’re right. I should be taking care of myself.” You want to return to what the foundation of that principle is. You can agree on the principle. You can agree with the perception. You can agree with the facts. You can also ask what consequences your behavior is having on them, which is an interesting conversation. Sometimes we deal in conflict with a lot of the symptoms, but we don’t dig in to figure out what the cause is. If we’re good at accepting criticism non-defensively, people are more willing to get to the root of a problem rather than just dealing with symptoms, which never really solves the issue.
Hugh: Yes. We want to put a Band-Aid on it, be nice, and move on, deflecting it. A lot of good stuff in that narrative. There are a lot of meaty suggestions in this.
We do have people who are difficult, but we also have people who ask difficult questions. Different dynamic. For instance, in the church, I do a planning team for a concert. I always had one person who was not an insider who I knew would ask difficult questions. They were a team player; they weren’t a difficult person. How does a leader make that differentiation between someone who is a team player and not trying to give you heartburn but they’re asking difficult questions which we need to hear?
Kit: One of the ways I do that is a little technique I call perception checking. If someone asks a pointed question or leading question, I’ll casually restate or rephrase it slightly. I’ll say, “Are you saying that because…?” and I have one interpretation of what they said. “Or are you saying that because…?” Then I have a second interpretation. Then I ask a clarifying question of which it is. When someone asks a question like that, my goal is to continue the conversation. One mistake we make in conflict is we try to get it over as quickly as possible because it’s so uncomfortable for everyone else in the room. If we can stretch it out and have more of a conversation and be more casual about it, then I think it takes down the anxiety of everyone else. Perception checking is fantastic. The first time you do that to someone that’s like that, they look at you like you sprouted a third eyeball in the middle of your forehead because people don’t usually do that.
If they said, “What a dumb policy. Who thinks stuff like this up anyway?” I would just look thoughtful and say, “When you say it’s a dumb policy and you’re wondering who thinks up this stuff, are you saying you think this policy is too restrictive, or do you think the policy isn’t very clear? What are you thinking?” Usually I will try to have one interpretation that is pretty close and one that is a throwaway so there is somewhere in between where they can come back with a different perception or description of what they’re thinking or asking about. It’s a lot of fun because the more they talk, the better they feel. It also then expands the conversation to another variety of perspectives they may not have considered and other people might be thinking who are in the room. Taking control of the conversation rather than being a victim of it, a great way to do that is through perception-checking.
We had a rule in our home with the kids. If they ever slammed their bedroom door, the door came off the hinges. I would carry it down to the other end of the house into our own bedroom. A week later, I’d put the door back on. The first two kids figured it out quickly, and they quit slamming their doors. The youngest daughter, she didn’t catch on to that too quickly. They are solid wood doors. I was getting tired of carrying that door down the hallway. My wife and I were having a conversation with her that she didn’t really enjoy. She got up, stormed down the hallway, and slammed her bedroom door. My wife said, “Get the hammer and the screwdriver.” I said, “Could I try something else this time?” She said yes. I waited a couple minutes and went down the hallway. I knocked and said, “Bri?” A long pause. She says, “Yes?” I said, “I noticed you stomped down the hallway and slammed the bedroom door. Is that because you’re upset with something your mother and I said, or is it because it slipped out of your hands? Which is it?” Another long pause. She says, “Slipped out of my hands?” I said, “Please don’t do that again.” “Okay.” I realized something. I think she was slamming the door because it was her way of getting back at me because I would have to pull the door down the hallway. I took the fun out of that. She never really slammed her door again.
Sometime difficult people are getting something out of it. By being nasty or mean, it might be the center of attention, or they might be getting their way, I have a couple of books over here. One is called The Psychopath Test, and one is called The Sociopath Next Door. The general population, there is a certain percentage of people who are sociopaths. Certain leaders can be sociopaths. Anybody can. It doesn’t bother them, but there is something that people who are difficult get out of being difficult. Sometimes they are just a difficult personality. They were born with that kind of personality. I have a brother who I don’t get along with very easily. The other two brothers don’t really get along with that brother that well either. He’s just a difficult personality.
Some people are strategically difficult. They know when they are going to be difficult. They know when they will complain at customer service to get something out of it. They know when they will complain to the waiter to get something out of it. They know they are going to get a better deal or a discount. They are choosing to be strategic. We have to figure out whether it’s just a technique or if it’s their personality. Sometimes you have to take a big old dose of acceptance. That is just the way they are. If it’s strategic, we can figure out a way to respond rather than react and take it personally.
Hugh: That’s brilliant. In all of that you just talked about, it’s the leader remaining in charge and not letting the emotion flood your brain so you do something stupid. I have been there. I have made more mistakes than anybody else. You can say one thing and an assaulting comment can become nuclear. When you’re coming back at somebody, in my world, don’t use the word “you.” You talked about “I” language. Once you say “you,” it’s defensive.
There is a book in addition to those specifically about church called Antagonists in the Church by Hauk. I thought in a 12,000-member church, there were six antagonists. It seemed like more because they moved around a lot. The point is you have to deal with them differently. I never really understood that until I spent three years teaching middle school; you just don’t do things normally in middle school because they want you to do more. How do we know that we’re feeding into a disfunction or if it’s a really legitimate pain? Talk about that. Then go into some more reasons why you think people are difficult people.
Kit: One of the keys when you mention that we take control or at least be in control of our emotions when we are in a conflict situation or stressful conversation is to understand our emotions so we can respond appropriately. There are five stages of that. All information simply comes through our senses. It’s what we hear, what we see. The more we get in, the better. The more accurate our interpretation, which is the second step: intellectual. Why did a person say this? Why did a person do this? How come this happened? It’s just raw data at first. Then it’s intellectual. Then what immediately follows is the feeling. Once we are trapped in that emotional state, it limits our options on what we would say and what we would do when we feel like that. But as leaders, we need to pick or select our best option and express that one.
I approach it like going to a buffet or a smorgasbord. I could have the beef. I could have the pork. I could have the chicken. I could have the fish. I could have the salad. I have that kind of flexibility when I go to the buffet. We should have that same kind of flexibility as a leader in how we respond. There are tasks and activities in which we have total control. There are tasks and activities in which we have some control. Total control. I have never accidentally eaten anything. I’m sure you haven’t either. My attitude, I can manage my own morale. I can do some positive affirmations, positive visualizations, pay myself some compliments when no one else is. What I say, I don’t know if you’re like me, but I spend a lot of my time biting my tongue. If leaders stop and think this is kind of a funnel, and I gather information, and I choose my interpretation or add a different one to it, it creates a different feeling, which gives me a different menu to select my best response.
I came across a book called- Anyway, it said that we think at 800-1,200 words per minute (because most people are visual). It only takes a few minutes for us to collect our thoughts, that old idea. Our thoughts are what create those feelings, then those options, and what we’re going to express. That is the part of it I think we just need to keep in mind. There is no hurry. People are always feeling rushed or they have to have a quip or a quick response when they are in a conflict situation. They really don’t. You haven’t signed anything yet. We haven’t reached an agreement. People are more patient with it being a conversation. That’s important.
Hugh: What you did in that analogy with the accusation is you turned it into a conversation. That’s a really important tool. If we’re a leader, we’re a leader everywhere. What Richard Rohr says in his books and writings and speeches is how we do anything is how we do everything. We can’t be a different person in different places. The things you’re talking about work in a church committee, at the workplace, at home, in our social settings. It’s not as much like you said boss, one of those words, which is a bad word, especially if you spell it backwards. The image of who we are as a leader is crucial. Sometimes, people aren’t attacking us; they’re attacking a concept. Dig a little more into difficult people and why would they- What you talked about is more of an attack thing, or it’s perceived as an attack. We care about what we’re doing, and we get ourselves invested. How do we separate this so it’s not about us?
Kit: Sometimes the attack might be someone wants something done correctly, perfectly. When the person approaches it that way, it could be that something had happened in the past and it was done poorly. People keep reminding them of that one time. Once you’ve tarnished a reputation, it will never be the same. Sometimes it’s hard for people to distinguish between old wounds and new conflicts. Sometimes I think people who want things done correctly or precisely struggle with that.
One of the ways I like to approach that when someone’s perfectionistic is to talk about what I call the three Qs: quickness, quantity, and quality. It spreads out the conversation in three different ways. If we’re talking about quantity being most important, then quickness and quality will be affected. If we want quality to be the most important thing, quickness and quantity will be affected. If quickness is what seems to be the most important aspect of the conflict, quantity and quality may be affected. I always like to compromise or negotiate those three Q’s whenever I am in a conversation with someone who is pretty wound up because they think something will be done poorly and they don’t want to be attached to that.
Sometimes you have people I call grenades who are starving for appreciation. You have a meeting that you have to go to, and you’re gone for an afternoon. You ask someone to cover for you. You come back and ask how it went while you’re gone, and they blow up. They have been working hard taking your phone calls, checking your email. You casually walk in, and they freak out, “I’ve been doing my job and yours.” You wave them down and say, “I know you’ve been working hard. I wouldn’t have asked anyone else to cover for me.” Then you walk away from them. They can pick up whatever they have knocked over and wipe the spit off their shirts. The stars will go away. Then you come back and ask how it went again. They will be a little lightheaded but much more comfortable.
The key is to recognize what it is that sets them off. I’ll give you an example. My oldest brother is a police officer. Sometimes he’ll call me when I am somewhere delivering a speech and he will leave a voicemail. All he’ll say is, “This is your brother. Call me.” When I get on the phone after the webinar, he will pick up and say, “Quit calling me at work. I’m responsible for every minute ten hours a day. I’ll call you later.” I used to think, Wait a minute. You told me to call you. I realized he was a grenade. When I call back, this is the first thing I say to him: “How is the hardest working man in law enforcement?” I get this instead: “Hehehe, well, I don’t know if I’m the hardest working man in law enforcement, but I am crunching crime.” Completely different tone. Once you recognize what they are starving for, all you need to do is spoon feed that at the beginning of the conversation. They get the appreciation they are hoping for. I love that technique.
Sometimes we have people who are really nice. They are yes people; they say yes to every request people make of them. They get themselves caught up in so much social maintenance activities they don’t get their work done. You have to sit down and talk to them like friends. Talk about the deadline, “How could we make sure we don’t miss our deadline?” You had mentioned the word “you.” I sometimes call that the language of responsibility. “I, me, you, we, us, our.” Sometimes they are the smallest words in the conversation, but they have impact in if you are accepting or shirking responsibility.
With a person who wants to get along with everybody, you just sit down and say, “What could we do differently so we don’t miss our deadline?” “I don’t know.” They don’t want to share their idea because if you don’t like their idea, they think you don’t like them. I say, “How about I email you a week before?” “Yep.” “If I call you two days before, would that help?” “Okay.” “Write that down. I will call you two days before. How about if I also stop by that morning to make sure everything is on track for that meeting at noon?” They say, “Okay.” You’ll do that and stop by at noon on Friday, and it won’t be done. You say, “That’s not like you.” They will do 27 double takes and say, “That’s not like me?” You say, “Usually you get your work done for me.” Then you let them know the negative impact it had on other people because they want to get along with everybody. You can use a certain amount of the social pressure that they let other people down, not just you. When they do follow through and get it done, you say, “That’s just like you. You get your work done for me.” It will be true. They will. They will get your work done.
Sometimes we deal with people who are in a double bind, what I call silent people. They want to get it done right, and they want to get along, but they say nothing. They might come up to you and say, “This has been going on every once in a while.” You’ll say, “How often?” That’s all you’ll get. You have to take the pressure off. “Does it happen every five minutes or so?” They’ll say, “No, it doesn’t happen that often.” “Once every couple months or so?” They are wondering if it was last month or this month. They want to be right, but they don’t want to say something that could damage the relationship. They say, “More often than that.” “Once a day or so?” Was that today? “No, not that often.” “So once a month or so?” They’re thinking there is 28 days in February and 31 days in March, but if you go over the five-day workweek, that’s uptight they are. You just have to have a conversation where you expand to the exaggerated possibilities to take the pressure off to get to the answer.
I always go back to those four intentions: get it done, get it done right, get appreciation, get along. That’s a great place to start. Then again, 1% of the population is ruthless. All you can do is save yourself.
Hugh: Like I said, they move around a lot.
Kit: They do. When I deal with someone who I know is ruthless, I think of them as a character in a movie or play. I’ll just expect it. They’ll be grumpy or grouchy or disagree with me. It doesn’t bother me.
One of the things I suggest to people when they work on teams or in an organization going through a lot of change, which could be caused by the pandemic, is to see yourself as a consultant. Become a good failer. Ask questions, make suggestions, fail. Ask questions, make suggestions, fail. The more comfortable we are doing that as a leader, the more comfortable other people are to share their creative ideas, too. It might not be the idea we need right now to solve the problem, but it might exactly be the idea we need a week from now or a month from now. If we can openly brainstorm or share those ideas without fear of failure, ridicule, or embarrassment, we create a third reservoir of knowledge that never existed before, which might be that perfect or at least best choice we could make.
We have to make sure we are the example to be that vulnerable to make suggestions that don’t fly, that people won’t salute when we set up the flagpole. One of the things I love about the clients I work with long-term is when the CEO or COO or directors or CFO or controller is in the training with everybody else. They are asking questions. “How would I say that if I was dealing with this?” I just love that, whether it’s learning new technology for their organization or a leadership development academy. They are in the class. You see the full support. I love that when leaders are learners, and they are listeners, and they set the example for other people in the room. I just love it when they do it.
Hugh: That ought to be mandatory.
Kit: Yeah, it should be. I was working with a commercial cleaning company in the northern suburbs that cleaned a lot of giant office buildings. They wanted my seminar “World Class Customer Service.” We had a four-week series on a Saturday morning. The owner was there the first day and stopped by the last day, but the two weeks in between, he had left and gone to his cabin. Everybody knew it. Here we were on a Saturday morning. We could just tell how it had a negative impact on the morale, on the enthusiasm of the employees because the leader didn’t show up. It must be not that important. Here we are on a Saturday, and they are at the lake.
Hugh: Isn’t that a large part of why people act out some issues? They don’t feel like they’re being treated with respect or importance or being acknowledged. Isn’t that a part of it?
Kit: Yeah. What I do in my seminars is I have groups come up with five different ways they can tell people it will get done, five ways they can say something will get done right, five ways they will get along, and five ways to show appreciation. “Thank you for your interest.” “Thank you for your support.” “I really appreciate your effort.” “Thank you for pointing that out.” “Thank you for complaining.” We could thank people for their opinion. “Thank you for bringing that to my attention.” I don’t think we could go too heavy on giving appreciation and restoring value in the relationships with the people we lead.
Sometimes we blow it. Sometimes we make mistakes and we damage relationships. It might be unintentional consequences. There is a little REPAIR model I use that seems to help.
The R stands for Recognize what the problem is, both intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes mechanically we know what to do, but what’s the emotional attachment to those behaviors?
Engage in productive communication. “I have noticed. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it. Something’s been haunting me lately.” You have to be vulnerable enough to engage in productive communications.
The P stands for Pose possible solutions. Sometimes I have had clients with relationships so damaged the only thing I can get them to agree to is to say good morning to each other for the next six weeks. It’s about enough time that we create a new communication pattern. Somewhere in the fourth week, when the person comes in and says, “Good morning,” it’s like I meant it. The hair stands up. Sometimes it doesn’t take. I’ll tell you what. On the seventh week, when that person walks in and does not say, “Good morning,” you notice right away that something is missing. You will find them in the break room and say, “Hey, you didn’t say good morning this morning.” “Six weeks are up.” “I miss it now.”
Then the A stands for Affirm each other. Compliment each other. Hold each other to the agreement until it Integrates into normal behavior.
Someone has to take the Risk. No one wants to do it because they are already intimidated by your position or your title as a leader. It’s critical for leaders to take the risk, to say they have noticed something. “I don’t know if you feel the same way I do.” People need to know you before they trust you. Leaders need to be willing—it has to be relevant to the relationship and appropriate to the situation—to share what they think and how they feel. Be clear about that. I believe other people will honestly share what they think and how they feel because they don’t see a downside to it because you just demonstrated there isn’t anything really at risk except open and honest communication. Conflict is a byproduct of open and honest communication.
When I work with teams, they will ask me to give a team building seminar. “How come?” “Because there is a lot of conflict.” “Actually, you might need a conflict resolution seminar.” Conflict is a good sign on the team. That means people are willing to tell each other what they think and how they feel. It’s energizing. It’s not a work group; it’s a team.
Hugh: It’s a sign that not everyone is a yes person. You have some thinking people.
Kit: Interesting. You can’t believe people think that way. There are better decisions when there is some disagreement because people point out weaknesses or areas that could be improved or modified to be more effective. If we don’t create that supportive communication climate for the disagreement and sharing of opinions or perspectives, we miss out on a lot of great decisions and ideas that could change an industry, or your organization for sure.
Hugh: I want to highlight a couple of things you said this time and last time. Underlying communication is relationship. You talked about relationship in passing. To me, that is one of the key components of all of this. What you have demonstrated is you have actually treated a person as a person. You’re not just a worker or a means to an end; it’s a person. Reframing and repeating or clarifying the comment. Sometimes people feel really embarrassed to hear their words come back to them. What you did in both of those, and this is in the writings of Murray Bowen, a leadership methodology I have found to be extremely important. I teach the works of Berns and Bass, the transformational leadership model. This one is how we manage ourselves. Bowen said, “It’s okay to have empathy for somebody, but you have to get out of it quickly. Feeling sorry for someone is not a productive emotion.” It’s an emotional decision, not a thinking decision. I want you to talk about the emotion and the logical piece of it.
But first, before I forget it, your website is Welchlin.com.
Kit: Yep, just my last name.
Hugh: What will they find when they go there?
Kit: There is a variety of topics and tons of videos. They can go to my YouTube channel with more than 250 videos. That’s YouTube.com/KitWelchlin. There are episodes with a struggling image of me in a six-camera shoot for 2.5 minutes. I have a struggling image of me with an issue with change or customer service or difficult people or communicating between men and women or generations. I try to help me in two minutes. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn’t, which is part of the fun. I have another YouTube channel called Seminars on Stress. That has about 50 videos that are free. There is a tip sheet on 30 strategies for managing stress on the website.
You know the empathy thing you brought up. Empathy is one of the most powerful soft skills there is. You don’t lay on it very long like you say. What I always tell people is you have to empathize with someone because then they feel normal. Then you can redirect them with logic. “I can imagine this is awfully frustrating.” I am frustrated. Then they feel normal. This is how we’re going to move forward. “I hear you’re pretty excited about the promotion.” “Yes.” “This is what we’re expecting from you in that position.” You have led with the emotion so they feel normal. Unless you address that emotion, they won’t listen to the logic. Put them in a place where they feel comfortable with that emotion. Then we dislodge them to move forward relatively quickly.
I don’t think we should dwell on that. Compassion fatigue. I say to people, “If you see someone coming toward you with a coffee cup, run for your lives.” They will stand there until it’s bone dry and stone cold and spend a lot of time in every conversation. But you can’t absorb. You have to get in the habit of saying, “Good luck with your problem.” You can’t fix everybody’s problem. You have plenty of things to do as a leader, too. Empathizing, the closest you can get to sounding like you have felt that emotion and the word. Then you’re good to move on and redirect.
Hugh: It reminds me of a couple of sales tools. One is reframing an objection as a request for information, which is part of what you did. This particular one is the feel/felt/found. Name how you feel. “I felt that way, but when I got into it, I found this out.” It’s not a trick; it’s a clarification. It’s also an acknowledgement of a person. In the church many times I have picked a hymn that people didn’t like. They come at the end with the finger, “Why did you choose that?” I said, “Thank you for that. Let’s talk about it.” Acknowledging they have made a comment and not created a triangle with someone else to talk about you. The other principle is move toward conflict calmly and directly. Speak the facts, which you have worked on clarifying those facts.
This has been a helpful session. Some of these techniques will help us stay focused and calm. Leadership and communications have their grounding in relationship. What you have demonstrated is you value people enough to have the conversation. We’re living in an age right now where people talk at each other and not to each other.
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Kit, this hour has gone so quickly. I’m sure we could talk for another several hours on these topics. Rich in content. Rich in things to do. You can find Kit at Welchlin.com. Kit, what do you want to leave people with today?
Kit: I think it’s important for us as leaders not to just think about what we’re going to say. Leaders are listeners. One of the keys is to figure out why you’re listening.
You can listen to advise and evaluate, but usually the first thing out of our mouth is, “You should,” “You ought to,” “If I were you, this is what I would do.”
Or we listen to analyze and interpret. Then what comes out of our mouth is something like, “You know what your problem is?” “You know what’s going on here?” Not very motivating. When I come up to you, I might not want to be told what I should do or what my problem is.
But the other three. Reassuring and supportive. “I believe you have good common sense.” “I believe you have good communication skills. You’ll figure this out.” “You have a good idea. Go get ‘em, tiger.”
Questioning and probing. Just asking What or How questions to lead them to their own conclusions.
The last one is paraphrasing and understanding. Three out of four times, we don’t understand. You’re thinking a certain way if it’s more of an intellectual conversation, or you’re feeling a certain way if it’s more emotional.
I like to turn this upside down. I always ask my leaders to do this: Start out with paraphrasing and understanding. Ask What or How questions to lead them to their own conclusion. Then say something reassuring and supportive. What you might not have to do today is tell them what their problem is or what they should do. Wouldn’t that be nice? Even if you dropped them in a hat and pulled them out randomly, at least three of five times you would say something as a listener that was positive.
Hugh: Outstanding. Leaders have really good questions and they listen carefully. Kit Welchlin, this has been great. A treasure trove of ideas today. Thank you for being a guest on The Nonprofit Exchange.
Kit: Great to see you, Hugh. Thank you.