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An approach for helping demanding people

I found myself in a conversation this past weekend about demanding people–specifically, people who every time you hear from them have a litany of 10 complaints.

At that point the conversation took a U-turn. “Yeah, how do you deal with people like that?”

About three years ago I met someone who was really good at that, and fortunately I was in a good position to watch him work and he didn’t mind. I’m still not as good at it as he is, but few people are, and we would all do well to try to be better at it.

When you get a long list like that, it’s usually overwhelming. But here’s the thing. Usually the person knows at least on some level that it is overwhelming, but there may only be two, or even a single thing on that list that’s really important and the remaining things are for leverage.

So if you can narrow down what’s on the list that’s really bothering that person, you may very well be able to address one or two of those complaints and satisfy the person. Sometimes, especially if the list of complaints comes in via e-mail, it’s pretty easy to tell which of the items is the real priority. I’ll then formulate a plan to address the real priority, respond with the plan and a proposed timeline, and we take it from there.

Sometimes the priority is less clear at first and you may have to ask the person to prioritize. If you’re respectful and polite, hopefully the person will be willing to sit down with you and figure out priorities. Tread lightly at this point because the person may very well be upset, but if you own the issue, then explain that you only have limited resources and you want to do as much as you can for them, they’re likely to sympathize. Often, being willing to do something is half the battle, and once you’re listening, the person is willing to give a little to get a little.

So why spout off a litany of complaints instead of just telling you what they want?

Sometimes it’s a subconscious thing and the other person realizes there’s really one or two things he or she wants after the words are already spoken. Others will deliberately pad a list like that so they have room to negotiate. Forcing negotiation is necessary to survive in some environments, which means some people get used to doing that all the time, even when it’s not necessary or even counterproductive. That can be very confusing for someone whose primary job duty is something other than negotiating, but learning to recognize it is very helpful.

And here’s some good news. That guy I met who was really good at it? He took a job somewhere else for more money, and about a year later he hired me. There, I met other people with the same skill, and each of them were promoted soon after I met them. This definitely seems to be a skill that people value.

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