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.
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.