Working with Difficult People

Episode 6: How to Use Mental Fitness Tools to Improve Relationships


I had a challenging boss early in my career and fell into some common traps. Using the Positive Intelligence framework, now see how I could have approached this differently.


As background, I was excited to be out on my own and supporting myself financially. My education and career were moving along according to my plans. On my first day, I mentioned to a co-worker how excited I was to have this job. She was astonished, and said, “Really?” That one word and the way she said it raised a big red flag for me. Later that day, I walked into my boss’s office and saw huge piles of paper everywhere. I remember thinking, “This is not how professionals work”. Looking back now I realize that my judge saboteur was deciding how I felt about my boss. It put the label, “unprofessional” on this person that I barely knew.

Trap 1: Even when we have limited information, judge saboteur can make sweeping decisions about another person.

Later that week, my officemate told me that she thought our boss was intimidated by us because the boss didn’t have a college education, and we did. Now I had a negative opinion of my boss, and I believed that she had a problem with me. It was not a great way to start our relationship! It also let the judge in the door to judge circumstances. I started thinking that the job was beneath me and that my boss purposefully wouldn’t let me shine out of fear for her position. Of course, I wasn’t rude, but I was easily frustrated and I’m sure that was coming through.

Trap 2: “All or nothing” thinking can make it hard to see anything positive.

I felt like my ideas were always rejected, and the only way to get things accomplished was to make my boss think they were her ideas. The truth is that my boss was really quite good at what she did, and she provided me opportunities to grow. We always met our goals, and her bosses were happy with her work. She gave me a big opportunity where I helped to choose the new software to manage our department, and I was given the lead role in the implementation. I even got some managerial experience, supervising a new data-entry team member. It really was a good steppingstone for me.

Trap 3: Underestimating the impact of our role. As hard as we try, when our saboteurs are activated, it’s almost impossible be neutral and open-minded, and other people may pick up on our judgments.

In Positive Intelligence, we say that every conflict is created by the saboteurs in the room. When one person’s saboteur is triggered, it causes another’s saboteur to flare up, and around and around we go! I tried to project a neutral stance, but I’m sure my Judge triggered her judge. I was looking down on her, and she probably felt my judgment. Maybe when her saboteur was activated, it made her less open to my ideas, which just fed the conflict even more.

Alternative 1: Shift your attitude.

I could have changed my attitude and my approach when I brought her my ideas. My judge had decided that she would never accept my ideas unless I positioned them as her ideas. That set off a series of reactions between the two of us that made it so hard to work together. A powerful way of changing our attitude is to do some self-command exercises by focusing on one physical sensation.

Alternative 2: Shift your perception.

Employ the sage perspective that anything can be turned into a gift or opportunity. When everything is sunshine and roses, we don’t really grow. But when we must deal with challenging people, it creates the opportunity to learn something, like how to manage our own judgments about them.

Alternative 3: Use a sage power of empathy, curiosity, creativity, aligning to purpose, or laser-focused action.

At the time, I felt like I knew it all, and in reality, my boss had so much knowledge and expertise that I could learn from. Instead of going in thinking I had to coddle her, I could have been genuinely curious. I could have really cared about her ideas and feedback and dug deeper to try to understand them better. This would have helped us build trust. Then I could have offered my own ideas from a more informed place.

Also, I could have used the sage approach to innovation to brainstorm with her, so the ideas could have been ours instead of hers or mine. It’s a way of always looking at another person’s ideas and finding the 10% you can agree with, so you can build from there and generate lots of ideas, rather than getting stuck in pointing out how the other person is wrong.

My coaching and Positive Intelligence program can help you discover how your saboteurs get in the way of relationships, how to quiet them, and how to bring forth the best within you to change the pattern. My clients who have taken the program have seen their relationships improve as they became more self-aware and had developed the mental fitness to use these tools during increasingly challenging situations.

Until next time, I encourage you to look for the gift or opportunity in every difficult situation or challenging person in your life.

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