We have to face facts – at some point in our working life we will encounter what we believe to be “unreasonable” or “difficult” people. At sea we may be “stuck” with a difficult individual, and that is a real challenge.
It’s easy to let such a person affect us and ruin our day – perhaps even our entire trip. So we need to think about how to deal with them – to diffuse situations or to manage them in the long term until you pay off and can get away from them.
Here we set out some key strategies to handling unreasonable and difficult people. Now of course these are just some general rules of thumb to get you thinking. You need to be smart and think about your situation, how your reactions will affect what happens. Relationships are like chess games, each move you make comes with consequences. So be smart, consider your options, assess what your moves will be and focus on the desired end game.
The goal of all this is your happiness and peace of mind. So you need to be able to adopt an approach which keeps you happy while at sea, and which allows you to get on with your work, while no doubt focusing on getting back home.
1) Keep Your Cool: Perhaps the most important thing is to maintain self-control, as this can help avoid escalating any problems. It can be easier said than done in the face of provocation – but being the “bigger” person can be hugely beneficial. Maintaining composure can be hard, but the less reactive you are, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation. As daft as it sounds, take a deep breath and count slowly to ten (in your head, not out loud – that will probably annoy them even more).
2) Rise above it: How can you avoid being dragged into the negative spiral that unreasonable people like to create? Some people are simply not worth tussling with – they often enjoy the drama and upset they cause. So if possible, it could be worth trying to rise above any nonsense. If you are compelled to work closely, then you may have to strike a balancing act. You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys – so try and keep a distance if possible.
3) Shift from Being Reactive to Proactive: Just as black clouds preface a storm, the arrival of our unreasonable colleague is likely to come with problems. You need to get to know the signs, and of what is coming. That way you won’t be constantly on the back foot reacting to – you can be proactive and take the steps to protect yourself. This can help to minimise misinterpretation and misunderstanding, it can also give you the opportunity to deal with all the baloney. Once you can predict people’s words or deeds, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting.
4) Pick Your Battles: Not all difficult individuals require direct confrontation about their behaviour, while others crave it. Learn to let any unreasonableness go if you think it can be better left alone. Rising to the bait can be like oxygen to some people – by not allowing them their satisfaction you gain strength. It can certainly save a lot of time, energy and grief.
5) Separate the Person from the Issue: Try to understand what is really happening. Is this just a bad person or a bad situation? Away from the circumstances do you think they could actually be reasonable? If so, what steps can be taken to try and make the situation better – without having to think too much about the person?
6) Switching Back: A common pattern with difficult people (especially the aggressive types) is that they like to place attention on you to make you feel uncomfortable or inadequate. They will like to point out there’s something not right with you or the way you do things. The focus is consistently on “what’s wrong,” instead of “how to solve the problem.” They often intend to dominate and control, rather than to sincerely take care of issues. If you react by being on the defensive, you simply fall into the trap. So switching the focus back to them with questions can stem their negative flow.
7) Put the Spotlight on Them: Don’t suffer alone – sound others out. Do they suffer the same way? Do they think it is unreasonable? The weight of popular opinion often means a lot to unreasonable people. So if the consensus moves from them, they are weakened.
8) Powers that Be: If possible or necessary it may be necessary to kick the problem up the chain of command. Speak to a senior officer or someone in the office ashore. This can have a knock on effect – so make sure that any problems are not left with you. You will need faith and confidence that the power structure will have enough weight to deal with the problem.
9) Laughter Heals All: It can sometimes be possible to disarm unreasonable and difficult behaviour through humour. Quick witted people tend to diffuse problems before they even begin to build. This shows detachment – and also highlights to potential bullies that they could end up being made to look foolish. Laughter is a valuable and powerful weapon… When appropriately used, humour can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behaviour, and show that you have superior composure.
10) They don’t like it Up ‘Em: Often unreasonable people are actually bullies – just in a different form. What they do have in common with other forms of bully is that they do not like confrontation. They pick on those they feel are weak – so by standing up, this shows they have messed with the wrong person. This isn’t about physical violence – this is just about removing the passive and compliant nature in the relationship. Many bullies are cowards on the inside, so when their victims begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is as true in schoolyards, as well as in offices and even on ships.
Being on the receiving end of bullying or having to deal with difficult people can make time at sea even harder than it need be. There are many new initiatives to help seafarers to deal with such difficult times. Sailors Society has launched its “Wellness at Sea” programme http://www.sailors-society.org/welfare-mission/wellness/ , and ISWAN’s Seafarer Help http://www.seafarerhelp.org/ exists to give those at sea an outlet and chance to talk.
Do not suffer alone – think the situation through and try and get help if it is needed. Most people have had to deal with unreasonable people, and it can be a miserable time – but keep strong, have faith – and know that one day soon whatever happens you will walk down the gangway and be rid of them.