How To Handle Difficult People

I almost titled this as “how to handle difficult clients”, but I thought for a minute and realized the techniques aren’t so different. Also, the differences between “difficult clients” and “difficult editors” (you can replace it with publisher, beta reader, coworker…) are minimal.

In your career you will run into difficult people. I would even say that you will run into more of them as a creative professional because creative folk run on a different wavelength than most people. This is both a good thing and a bad thing for all of us because we creatives are passionate, excitable, often hardworking, and in touch with our emotions. It’s great. Until it isn’t.

The dark side of creativity means we are moody, protective, irritable, and often live in a world where practicality falls a bit by the wayside. We also typically want to go our own way which results in stress and headaches for everyone involved because “go our own way” sometimes means charging headlong over a cliff everyone else saw coming.

So how do we handle it when a fellow creative is being less-than-helpful with what we are doing? There are a lot of ways, but I’ve found this approach often results in fruit.

I always start with listening. Sometimes these folks have something valid to say and are having trouble spitting it out. They may not even understand the core of the problem, themselves. However, listening to someone – and genuinely listening – sometimes is enough to help them feel as if they are heard and their feelings matter.

Many creatives are living under a constant barrage of “why don’t you get a real job?” or “your writing sucks, don’t quit your day job (if you have one, burger flipper)” and so on. It’s a bad world out there for us because the arts are so under-appreciated these days. It’s a pretty terrible place to be. Not only that, but as I have said many times… there are sharks in our waters. People who prey on creatives’ hopes and dreams to turn a profit.

This all builds up into an explosive mixture for some folks. Letting them rant and rave (at least for a short time) is sometimes all it takes for them to calm down and realize that they are being a dummy. Or, at least, they will appreciate that someone took the time to hear what they are upset about.

This is tough. I’ve had clients with whom I had to be extremely patient because they just couldn’t grasp something. Or they were being bullheaded. It happens to all of us, and I have been that bullheaded client before, so I’m not pointing fingers.

We creatives all communicate a little differently. Some people are Hemmingway blunt. They say what they mean and to hell with the consequences. Others are far more flowery and require some digging to get into what they mean. They also tend to talk around a subject rather than address it. Both of these methods of communication have issues.

When interacting with other people in this world, we have to recognize the differences in style because what may come across as “mean” might just be the Hemmingway type. They don’t intend hurt or pain, but they would rather be honest with you than blow smoke. Or someone who seems “wishy washy” might well be rock solid and just be trying to be diplomatic. It can be hard to sort out the differences if you let your emotions get the better of you. Particularly if you’re talking to them online.

After listening to the person, I give serious consideration to what I’ve just heard. Is what they are saying accurate? Are they trying to be hurtful? Are they just not good at talking to people? This kind of discernment is important because it will allow you to see what is happening from a more complete perspective.

At this point, I try not to let my emotions get the better of me. If I’m upset by what they said or how they said it, I try and step away for awhile and calm down. That allows me to be more logical when I approach the conversation the second time and gives me the opportunity to focus myself and formulate my reply.

Once I understand what they are really saying and what their intent is, I can respond appropriately.

Finally, I treat as many situations as possible with professionalism. This is tough. Particularly when we are overcome with emotion. It’s easy to start creating these folks as friends and even family at times, but if this person is a client, or someone we are doing work with in any way, we need to make sure we approach these difficult situations with professionalism. That means we aren’t going to cuss them out or become sarcastic or rude.

In some ways, I find it important to rely on my professionalism when everything else is falling apart. For example, I had a client make a huge number of demands on my time. The client was rude, hurtful, selfish, and just generally a pain to deal with. They sucked up huge amounts of my time with requirements and attempted to overstep the amount they were paying me. Regularly.

I could have cussed them out when I left – after all, they had just sent me a particularly nasty message. I can tell you I was furious. Particularly since they made threats that I’d “never work in the business again” and that I was an idiot who couldn’t “see literary genius” and so on. The usual slew of insults when you tell a particularly crunchy creative “no”. Instead of cussing him out, I sent that client a very polite message and then sent every future message to my spam email folder.

When you behave that way it gives you the upper hand because anyone in the future examining the situation will see one person who is angry and unleashing a flow of invective and one who is behaving in an (at least) cordial manner and acting as a professional. Typically, judgment will lean toward the side of the professional.

To wrap this up, the three principals I have outlined here, listening, careful consideration, and  professionalism have saved my bacon more than once. This is just as true for an author as it is for an editor, publisher, cover artist, etc. The reason being is that we are all in this surprisingly small pool together, rubbing elbows. If you develop a reputation for lacking in the above traits it will spread. Regardless of what side of the industry you’re on, if you develop a reputation for being a dunderheaded, kneejerking, unprofessional individual it will haunt you. Trying to shake off that reputation is extremely difficult, too, because once people are wary of you it tends to stay that way for years.

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