Dealing With Difficult Partners

By Kaye Vivian

Every moment of misery is different, and every set of circumstances in which partners find themselves confronting their partners is different. This makes it hard to be prepared for these moments when they do occur. Yet these moments of misery are bound to happen, since everyone doesn't perform up to their full potential 100% of the time, and conflicts arise for any number of reasons.

Some general guidelines may help a managing partner or a concerned peer turn the miserable moments and conflicts around.

  1. Deal with the person, and then deal with the problem. Angry people need to vent their wrath. Once that is done, they will be willing to let you help to resolve the problem.

  2. When any problem occurs, listen actively. Ask questions and mentally trade places with the party you are talking to. What do you think is behind what is happening on the surface? Follow your intuition.

  3. Show empathy. Express how you would feel in similar circumstances. Acknowledge an injustice, if you see one has been done.

  4. Offer to help find a solution, but don't resolve the problem yourself. Ask questions that will get each party involved in discussing options and possibilities. Find out what it would take to make the problem go away for each of them; offer suggestions that will enable that to happen.
  5. Follow up. Check back with all parties in a few days and then again a few weeks after the incident. Be sure that everyone has followed through on what they were expected to do and that everything is satisfactory from each person's point of view.

Most difficult, people fear change. They rely on consistency and predictability and repetition for their security. If that security is threatened by new rules, new expectations, and challenges for which they feel unprepared or inadequate, then they will react with hostility, turf protection, and withdrawal. They feel their power is diminished and sometimes feel like everything they have worked for and invested their time to build is slipping away.

Co-workers who fear change may appear surly, aggressive, snappish, belligerent, manipulative, rude, condescending, patronizing, moody, withdrawn, anxious, or skeptical. They may develop health problems, such a high blood pressure or heart irregularities, or begin to overeat and gain weight. Their behavior may alienate clients, make them suddenly unpredictable, cause over-managing of younger staff, and demonstrate lack of trust or a sudden interest in executing normal activities "by the book."

If there is no one in your office who can negotiate a skillful win-win solution with a difficult partner, it's not necessary to ease them out of the firm. There are behavioral change consultants who specialize in executive "turnarounds." These consultants work one-on-one, usually for two to three days spread over a couple of weeks, and help the troubled individuals to realize their impact on co-workers and the ways their behavior is perceived by others.


Kaye Vivian is a consultant with over 15 years of experience in marketing communications serving professional services firms. She also publishes The Legal/Accounting Web (http://www.cloud9.net/~kvivian/html/legal_accounting_web.html), a website with marketing and communications tips for CPAs and attorneys.

Copyright 1998 by Kaye Vivian (kvivian@cloud9.net). All rights reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided this article is not altered and the copyright notice remains attached.

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