Tips for dealing with difficult people

ST. JOHN’S — Recently, a video of a Florida judge and a public defender getting into a heated argument before leaving a courtroom for an apparent fistfight made the rounds on the Internet.

That might be on the extreme end of workplace conflicts, but as St. John’s consultant Kathy Hickman told lawyers this morning at the Canadian Bar Association conference, everyone could be better at dealing with difficult people at work.

Nothing will change if you have “a rocking chair mentality” toward the people who drive you nuts, Hickman told a full house of junior and senior lawyers, including Ontario ombudsman André Marin. “It’s not going away,” she said.

“You need to start thinking about who you find difficult. I noticed that in my workplace, the people that I found difficult . . . one of the things that I knew about them was that I knew very little about them.”

Hickman added she was determined to “find goodness in them,” and started noticing change in how she felt about the people she wasn’t a fan of.

Another way to deal with conflict is to expect it, she said. “If you know the triggers of this difficult person, plan around it.”

To understand why conflicts happen, Hickman asked lawyers to consider the cultural and generational diversity of the people in their offices. Some cultures see silence as a form of respect for another person, whereas others see it as a sign of disregard. And what could be an honest question by a Gen Y employee may come off as confrontational for baby boomers, she added.

Difficult people are often “the elephant in the room,” because oftentimes, everyone avoids having to deal with them,” Hickman said, encouraging lawyers to “act with courage and consideration.”

Vancouver medical malpractice defence counsel Jennifer Brun, who is also the chairwoman of the CBA’s young lawyers division, shared a story about a phone conversation with a client in which the client interrupted her to say, “You sound awfully young.”

Her response? “Well, you sound awfully old but I’m not judging your ability to do your job based on your age.” Said the client: “Continue.”

According to Vivian Rachlis, a partner at Winnipeg firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, knowing how to deal with difficult people is “a muscle memory” that gets strengthened through experience.

Rachlis said ill feelings are also known to exists between lawyers representing opposite parties but she reminded counsel they have a duty “to rise above” those feelings.

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