Dealing with 'difficult people'
Another powerful use for the Flourish Life Assessment
Lots of you now know about the Nine Needs for flourishing, because in the past few days lots of you have downloaded our free self-assessment. (By the way, it was so popular we've extended the offer until this Sunday!)
So you'll know how powerful it is - even the free mini-version - as a tool to identify how to thrive better in your life. You'll know which of the Nine Needs are currently well met, and which ones, if you address them, will move you towards a more rich and fulfilling (and less stressful and empty) life.
However this tool has another powerful use. It can help guide you to get the best out of others who are stuck in reactivity - that is, in the grip of unpleasant, unhelpful, or unskillful behaviour.
After my post last week, I was delighted to receive a call from someone I used to coach when I was running my leadership development business. James* was a pleasure to coach - he's really high on the Five Growth Superpowers (also assessed in the Flourish Life Assessment), especially the last one - Commitment to Growth. He was keen to hear about Flourish.
During our chat, James told me about some people in his life that he thinks are a bit stuck (one of the common reasons people look to grow as people). One of these is his mother-in-law who responds very defensively to even the slightest suggestion that something she's done is not perfect.
She's vacuuming the loungeroom for them, and James' wife Lauren* asks her to make sure she doesn't miss the corner behind the chair where there is some dirt. Her go-to reactive pattern is defensiveness - the request is received as a criticism of what she's doing and an indication that she's not seen as competent, not respected, valued or appreciated.
James is high on another Growth Superpower - Courage - and he tells me he's thinking of giving her some straight feedback. This pattern has been on loop for some time, it creates tension and he'd like to address it. He's well practiced at giving feedback to his staff at work, and addressing issues rather than avoiding them - these are real strengths!
However I'm sure you can sense it - there's potential in this scenario for things to go pear-shaped. Especially if mum-in-law is not high on the Growth Superpowers, and doesn't know any other way to deal with her unpleasant feelings.
This is where the Nine Needs can help.
The powerful question for James to explore here is this: which of her Needs is smarting right now?
To answer it, he will have to start with questioning rather than feedback. He has to uncover the reactive pattern. Here are a couple of plausible (and entirely fictional) scenarios:
Her need for Belonging is under-done. Her children have all left home now and have their own families. She's not feeling secure about her place in their life as they don't need her any more. She's not confident they value her enough as a person to want her in their life now that she has no formal role, so she's trying to shore up her sense of belonging by being useful to them. Anything that suggests her efforts are not being appreciated or valued, makes her need for Belonging feel at risk.
Her need for Autonomy is under-done. As a young woman she went along with the ambient expectations of her era that rewarded women for being compliant, being obedient, being followers. This meant her own needs often went un-noticed - not even considered - and she feels sad that she missed out on a lot in life. She associates being instructed, or told what to do, with the unpleasant experiences of powerlessness, so reacts badly when there's any whiff of this. It's her way of keeping those unpleasant feelings away. While it does tend to create other unpleasant ones in their place, they are not as closely connected with her unmet need for Autonomy, so that's her go-to reaction.
So how could James go about this?
The 'start-up' to any difficult conversation is super-important - stating a positive intention is a good first step. Let's say James expresses his desire to have harmony with her, and for her to be happy, and would like to chat about something that seems to be getting in the way of those things.
From there, this is how it might look:
start by sharing what he's observed her do or say (just the observables - things he hears or sees - not the invisibles of thoughts, feelings, motives etc.)
reassure her of her place in their life and restate a positive intention
ask what's going on for her
listen, acknowledge, clarify
only once it's clear she feels really heard and understood - THEN problem solve (agree what behaviours you'd like from each other)
For example: I noticed when Lauren pointed out the dirt behind the chair, you said ...x, y, z,.... and seemed to be upset about it (be ready to furnish her with what made her seem this way if needed - e.g. expression, tone, cutting off eye contact or leaving the room). You're an important and ongoing part of our life. I don't want you to feel upset around us. I want us to feel at ease around each other and be able to communicate little things like this without it causing tension. When we say things like that we're not meaning to upset you - can we talk about what's going on there for you?
James' mother-in-law may or may not be immediately forthcoming. It might take some patience, some further clarifying questions, and some further reassurances to soothe any un-met Needs that emerge from the conversation. If he can do that well though, the problem solving bit - agreeing what you want from each other - will be much easier.
By discovering what Needs are smarting, James is much more likely to be able to navigate the situation helpfully, avoid any emotional landmines, help soothe his family member's pain, and ultimately, improve their relationships.
*Names have been changed.