How to handle difficult people and retain your inner calm

In this article, I want to turn to the difficult subject of difficult people. As a caveat before we go any further, I should say that that term is a shorthand. Most people aren't 'difficult' by nature, and if they are, it may be beyond their control or for a perfectly understandable reason.

Part of the skill of leading and managing choirs is learning to handle many different characters who often have competing, even conflicting, wants and needs. Firstly, let's look at a few of the tricky types I've come across in my career, then we'll consider some tactics for dealing with them as a choir leader.

The one who's a little bit better than the rest of us

All choirs contain a range of abilities and experiences. When things work smoothly, the less able or experienced are helped and supported by their more able colleagues. Being one of the more competent singers in a group is a pleasure and a privilege, but just occasionally, you come across someone who doesn't get that. They're very keen to let you know when those around them are doing something wrong. They're even keener to make sure you know that they're doing it right!

As singers, most of us manage to be diplomatic when we hear that something isn't quite right during rehearsal. We may ask the conductor to revisit a passage because 'there's a little confusion' about something or because 'we're not sure' about a particular point. We keep it inclusive and don't seek to assign blame. The person who sticks up their hand during rehearsal and informs you of the errors of others may lack humility, but is unlikely to motivated by malevolence. Essentially they're seeking approval and validation by setting themselves above their cohort. They're insecure about their own abilities and achievements and they look for reassurance by comparing themselves with others.

The one who looks miserable, but isn't

This is a phenomenon that I first came across in my days in the legal profession. I had built up a nice little sideline on the legal training lecture circuit. As I spoke to groups of lawyers, I would see happy, engaged faces, impassive faces, bored faces, and occasionally a face that looked downright miserable. I would assume that this glowering person was deeply unimpressed with me and what I had to say, but almost without exception, I would get excellent feedback from these people. The first time it happened I was astonished. How could someone who appeared to be so glum and who didn't interact at all in the session actually be having a good time?

The same thing has happened many times when I've been leading choirs and workshops. There are some people who, outwardly, seem to be unengaged and even hostile, who turn out to be having a brilliant time!

The one who looks fine, but isn't

The converse of the one who looks miserable but isn't, is the one who looks fine, but isn't. As choir leaders, we want to do a good job, and one way to assess our performance is by feedback from our choirs. The problem with this type of person is that if you ask them directly for their opinion, they will always tell you that everything's fine, even if it's not. It's a bit like eating in a restaurant, moaning at your dining companion that the meat is tough, but then, when asked by your waiter if you're enjoying your meal, saying 'it's lovely, thank you'. I think this kind of reaction is borne of an unwillingness, or even inability, to complain. Maybe this isn't a problem in other cultures, but it's very British! This is why true feedback has to be anonymous.

The 'class clown'

One of the trickiest folk I've come across is the born comedian who wants to use you as material! Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with humour in rehearsals - indeed, it's vital. The problem is that this person won't let you get away with anything. The tiniest error or confusion on your part is leapt upon and pointed out for laughs. Like the 'one who's a little better than the rest of us', the class clown wants attention and validation, from you and their colleagues. The difficulty for a choir leader is that constant interruption and second-guessing is exhausting and undermining.

Tactics for handling 'difficult people'

Before we look at some ways of managing issues in your choir, I should add a caveat about the use of the phrase 'difficult people'. It's a shorthand - I'm not suggesting in any way that people we might say are 'difficult' are that way all the time, or are doing it deliberately. We can all inadvertently cause offence or forget to consider others' feelings once in a while.

Always keep your cool

Losing your temper with your choir is damaging and counterproductive. In any leadership role, you need to be in control; throwing a hissy fit for any reason takes away your control, not to mention the fact that it will hardly endear you to those you are leading! Depending on your character, that might be easier said than done, but it's vital that you find ways (count to ten, bite your lip, punch a pillow when you get home - whatever) to keep a lid on it. Remember that the people you are leading are there voluntarily and they deserve your respect, even if at that moment they're getting on your last nerve.

Don't be thrown off course by interruptions

You go into rehearsals with a plan. Now, of course that plan is not carved into stone - we have to be reactive to what happens in rehearsal. However, it's important that we don't allow interruptions to completely de-rail the work we want to do. If someone raises a question that is not specifically related to what you're working on in that moment, thank them, make a note and come back to it later. This is particularly important when someone points out others' mistakes (or worse - questions your interpretation). You need to make it clear, politely and amiably, that you are one in charge of directing the choir.

If you're getting persistent interruptions from a 'class clown', my advice is smile, don't respond to whatever was just thrown your way, and move on swiftly. Attempting to answer quip with counter-quip is doomed  to failure - this type of person will always want the last word - and you'll be sidetracked even further.

Don't take it personally

Whenever you're dealing with tricky individuals, it's easy to feel like it's all your fault. But the fact is, as so often in life, it's almost certainly not about you. The choir in front of you is made up of individual human beings, with complex lives, experiences and motivations. When you see a disgruntled expression on the face of a choir member, you're probably not the cause of the disgruntlement. Maybe that person had a row with their partner, maybe they are having a tough time at work. Focus on your performance, on doing the best you can for your choir, and you'll be fine.

Empathise

One of the most powerful ways that I've found of dealing with difficult people in any walk of life is to empathise with them. Sometimes that's not easy - difficult people can make us defensive and angry. But if you put yourself in their shoes for a moment, you may be able to get an inkling of why they're exhibiting the behaviours that you find difficult. Perhaps they're lonely, disappointed with their choices and achievements, fearful of rejection or failure. Just by imagining how you might feel if you were that person, you can defuse your reaction to them.
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10 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

"Calm persistence" is a lovely way of putting it, Paul.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Theresa First of all, thank you for your kind words about the podcast and website. I'm so glad you find it helpful. Secondly, well done! What a brave thing to do to take on a community choir with such a long history. I think you've got two major issues to tackle here. The first is a general one - the choir's status as a non-auditioned community choir. You say that despite that status, there's an expectation that members will be able to basically hold a melody or harmony, sing in tune and have some understanding of music. That's all fine, but who determines whether a new member meets that expectation? If you're going to ask new members to self-assess their competence, you're going to get situations like the one you're in now where a person self-assesses poorly and thinks they're up to the task when they're not. If you are going to assess whether a new member meets the expectations your choir has, then you are effectively auditioning, and you may as well just be up-front about it and call it what it is - an auditioned choir. You, and the choir, need to decide what you value more: your non-auditioned "all-comers" status, or a choir that comprises only competent singers. I don't think you can have both. The second issue is specific - your situation with this lady. I am full of sympathy for you because my least favourite tasks as a choir leader are those where I have to criticise singers, whether it's in rehearsals or auditions. One thing I've learned so far is that it's better to be completely clear than try to be so diplomatic that you end up not imparting the information that needs to be imparted. I think you're quite right to say that she hasn't "heard" you, and I suggest that you have another conversation with her, in private, in which you set out very clearly what you expect her to change and by when. You also need to tell her if failing to meet that standard will mean that you'll be asking her to leave. However, do be very careful that you're not making rules for her that don't apply to everyone else. And if you're going to make rules for everyone, you need to communicate them to everyone - which sort of leads you back to auditioning. I don't envy you with this one, Theresa. It is, as you say, tricky. Do let us know how you decide to proceed and how you get on.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Owens. I sympathise with you - that's an annoying problem. My own choir has been missing a few altos lately, and it has affected the balance. It seems to me that you have two options. 1: Impose a change, deal with any negative reaction and hope that it will shake out over time (you could remind your singers that those who sing 'inner' parts will improve their music-reading skills). 2: Continue to allow singers to decide where in the choir they sing, and look to attract some more altos from elsewhere. Personally, I wouldn't rely on singers choosing their own place in the choir. Even if your choir isn't auditioned, I would take the time to listen to everyone's voices individually and place them in a section based on their range and timbre. I hope that helps. Best of luck.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Sandra. I have to preface what I say with a big caveat, which is that I don't know you, your choir or the person you're talking about. However, in principle, I think you have to stand up to bullies. If your efforts to do so haven't worked, and others aren't prepared to rock the boat, you might have to consider voting with your feet. Perhaps there's room for another choir in your community!
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Sandra. Regular re-auditioning is quite common in larger, more professional choruses. I had to do it several times when I was singing with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Even in an adult choir, people's voices change. Personally, I think auditioning every two years creates a lot of work for everyone, but I see the point.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Yes it is, but you can also contact us via the 'contact' link in the nav bar.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi DEB. I don’t know the details of the situation, so this is just a quickly-formed opinion, but if this small choir wants things one way and you want them another way, you either insist on your way and risk them leaving, or you leave. If they all want something that you don’t want to provide, maybe it’s time for you to do something new. Alternatively, you could talk to them honestly and find a compromise. Perhaps half the session could be ‘traditional’ and half new things that you choose.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Tena. What a horrible situation to find yourself in. It sounds as though this man might have some mental health issues. If I were in your position, I would do what you are planning to do - speak to him directly and tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable. I suggest that you have someone when you when you do that. If you would like to get the opinions of other choir leaders about this, you might prefer to post in our private Facebook group for choir leaders, which you can find by searching for Total Choir Resources. You'll get lots of help and support there.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

To be honest Chris, I think you have to make some tough decisions about what sort of choir you're running. If what you want is musical excellence and you feel that that requires a particular level of attendance, then make rules to that effect. If you don't want to make those rules, I think you have to accept that some people's attendance isn't going to be what you would like. Christine and I don't have attendance requirements for our choirs. We encourage a culture of teamwork and we stress to people that their attendance is important to the choirs, but we've decided that making rules is counter-productive, so we take the rough with the smooth. One thing that really helped with attendance and commitment was moving from a 'pay as you go' structure to a standing order. When people feel that they have already paid for their choir place, they seem to be more invested in showing up.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Suzanne. I'm so sorry to hear that you're experiencing this. It's really horrible when the atmosphere at your choir is affected by a few individuals. This is a difficult situation for you, and I don't think there are any easy answers. Certainly, it's beyond what we could help you with in a reply to a public comment. Ultimately, you have to decide if you want to carry on with this. If you love the work, and there are people in the choir who love the singing, then maybe it's worth trying to rescue things. If you are the only decision-maker in the choir, you can ask someone to leave. Stay calm and professional, but say that the choir and your leadership style obviously isn't a good fit for them and they should find another choir to sing in. My view is that you should always say this in person if possible. Have another person with you if you feel vulnerable. Only you can decide what's best, Suzanne, but the important thing to remember is that no one should have to put up with abuse.
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