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All About You: Who are you calling difficult?

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Who are these “difficult people” we all have to deal with regularly? They must be everywhere! Search the term “dealing with difficult people” online and you’ll get more than 7 million hits. All kinds of article and book links show up.

You and I aren’t difficult, of course – it’s got to be the other guy or gal. Perhaps on occasion, when I’m in a bad mood or not paying attention to how I’m acting, I can be hard to handle. But generally I don’t consider myself a difficult person. You probably feel the same way.

This is similar to how most of us feel about our driving skills. I used to hand out index cards to my audience and ask them to rate their driving ability using a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 representing horrible skills and 10 indicating an excellent driver.

Rarely did anyone write a number less than 5! Nearly everyone rated themselves between a 6 and 10, with 8 being the most popular rating. This means most attendees believed other drivers – not themselves – were the problem. I believe this type of biased thinking is one of the main reasons we have trouble dealing with “difficult people.”

Rather than labeling someone as difficult, I’ve found it helpful to realize that he or she merely has certain attributes I don’t like. It’s not the entire person.

I used to work with a fellow safety trainer whom I considered to be miserable. So, for a while, that’s all I focused on when I worked with him – his misery. Then one morning he told me a funny story about a student who sat in his class until the first break with a puzzled look. It turned out the student, who worked in an office, was in the wrong class and was totally confused about why he was learning about respirators! We both laughed heartily, and I realized that my “miserable” colleague wasn’t always miserable. From that day on I started to notice the qualities he had that I liked. There were more than I thought there would be. After a while, I found him less difficult to work with. He hadn’t changed – I had. My general opinion of him had improved simply because I began noticing his positive qualities.

Do you work with someone you can’t stand or who irritates you every time you’re together? Try looking for their good qualities. It’s not always easy, especially if you’ve worked with the person for a while, because your opinion about a “difficult person” will bias your feelings and reactions even when he or she isn’t being difficult. However, I’ve found it’s a frustrating waste of energy to try and change people. I’ve had much more success using that energy to change myself – particularly by altering the way unpleasant behavior affects me.

Here’s something else I keep in mind that helps me deal with difficult behavior. (Did you notice that I’m using the word “behavior” rather than “people?”) “Everyone has a different level of self-awareness.” That means we vary in our awareness of our shortcomings. I’ve been told about certain personality traits of mine that close friends and even my wife view as negative, and some of the things they mentioned surprised me.

Even after you’re aware of your negative attributes, it’s not easy to get rid of them. Sometimes a person is never told – or never realizes – that he or she is acting in a way that irritates other people. Understanding this puts a filter up that helps me quiet the voice in my head that wants to scream “This person is intolerable!”

Yes, there are people who peg the difficulty meter. They dominate every conversation, steal ideas, always gossip, kowtow to the boss and are just plain annoying. As safety and health professionals, dealing with all kinds of individuals is an important part of our job. So, learning how to control our feelings when we encounter difficult behavior will make our days easier.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit


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