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Difficult People

By Carolyn Parsons

It’s happened. A client, business partner, investor, or someone else that you work with who, for want of a better word, is difficult. I’m not referring to a person who is annoying but consistently produces stellar work, but rather the kind of difficult person whose behaviour creates a culture of negativity and stress, and who is described in modern parlance as toxic.

You’ve tried everything—reason, logic, explaining, defending, and more recently, communicating solely in writing, but no matter what, the ripples of their behaviour linger. They’ve found your buttons and gotten good at pressing them.

They even suggest you’re the difficult person.

You’ve spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out their motivation and responding professionally, but nothing seems to work.

The first thing you need to understand about the person is that if they’re causing chaos, then their motivation is chaos, so any attempt at de-escalation is doomed to fail. The sooner you realize that drama is the goal, the sooner you can start crafting responses designed to plug any cracks through which drama can seep. This is when you might want to start using what is known as the grey rock method in all correspondence.

There are two requirements to grey rocking in writing.

  1. Be concise. Tell them what you want and only that.

  2. Use boring, unemotional language and never address accusations or unfair assessments of the situation set forth by the difficult person.

Example

Jane’s company has been working with Charlotte’s for three months, and a deadline looms. The contract is proving difficult to fulfill due to Charlotte’s not providing the documentation required in a timely manner, which leads to conflict in every interaction. Jane has spent more time navigating conversations with Charlotte than with far more complex contractors. She now ensures every communication is in writing. She wants to complete the contract and walk away, but she is stuck and waiting for documents yet again. She sends a friendly third email requesting the documents. Jane reads Charlotte’s reply with disbelief and anger.

I hope you’re having a good day. I missed the deadline because nobody told me what it was. I don’t think it’s my job to go looking for this information. I do not mean to be critical but it seems your office constantly drops the ball. I do not understand how you operate so unprofessionally. I will tell everyone that your company is unprofessional if this continues. I really don’t have time this week to look for the documents so you will have to wait.

Have a good day? Jane’s hackles rise. She takes a deep breath and carefully composes a response providing information she has essentially already provided multiple times the past. Below is Jane’s reply.

Charlotte,

My day has been good, thank you. I am very sorry you didn’t see them but I want you to know that I did a search and saw that I sent the information on June 1 and July 3 and the read receipts show they were read. Perhaps someone else read them? They’re attached. I feel like it’s unfair to say you always experience trouble with my company because we are working hard to fulfill the contract. I reiterate that I’m sure we can work something out, and we will endeavour to assist you however we can. We are trying to be professional and hopefully we can fulfill the contract on time, but I do need the documents by the end of the week as we are already behind and that’s what we need to complete it on time.

Good email right? Jane has been friendly and professional while explaining the situation to Charlotte. Surely Charlotte will send the documents now, which is all Jane wants her to do. The reply is swift.

Dear Jane,

I cannot believe you fell behind on this contract and blame me. I will get the information to you when I can because you needed to tell me the deadlines much sooner, and now I’m too busy to do it. Yours is the most difficult company I’ve ever dealt with.

Charlotte has somehow managed to find a new complaint, even in Jane’s professional email. She needs to reply, but now let’s imagine Jane has learned the grey rock method. Note the difference.

Dear Charlotte,

On June 1 and again July 3 I sent emails to you with the due dates for the documents. My read receipts show they were read. Screenshots are attached. Please send the information I’ve requested by Friday at 5 PM.

Jane’s goal is to get the documents, so that’s all she ever needs to say, no matter what Charlotte writes. She has also wisely informed Charlotte that read receipts are in place and that there is evidence. If Charlotte replies with further accusations, the response should be nearly identical. Jane still may not get the documents by Friday. But she also hasn’t provided anything to trigger more conflict. Less is definitely more when you’re communicating with a difficult person.

I recommend highly that you research the grey rock method online before implementing this approach. The thinking behind it is that because difficult people thrive on chaos, your being a grey rock will eventually bore them. Ideally, it will condition them to do what you ask until you can extricate yourself from working with them permanently, while decreasing the amount of time you waste on them. Use the read receipt function on your emails regularly, and if you find yourself on the receiving end of an emotionally charged correspondence from a difficult person, investigate how to navigate written responses using this method. De-escalation is a skill that can be learned, and how you use language can be a powerful tool. Grey rocking is a last resort, but is an incredibly useful communication technique that can help you navigate complex business relationships.


 







Carolyn Parsons

Carolyn is a novelist and owner of Cabochon Manuscript Services, helping non-fiction and fiction writers through business plan writing/consultation, coaching, classes, developmental editing, and eventually, retreats. In 2021 she was one of 125 authors selected to have her entire body of work sent to the moon on the Peregrine Mission via Astrobotic and NASA and the Lunar Codex project as part of their lunar time capsule payload. Her novels, Desolate and The Forbidden Dreams of Betsy Elliott are highlighted on the project websites. The mission has been called a message in a bottle to the future. Artists from over 120 countries are represented; Carolyn is the only writer from Newfoundland and Labrador to be selected. She is from Change Islands and lives in Lewisporte.

Carolyn can be contacted at carolyn@cabochon.ca or at www.cabochon.ca.


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