How to handle difficult people and retain your inner calm - Total Choir Resources

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.

Victoria Hopkins

Victoria is a founder and director of Total Choir Resources. She leads Total Voice Chamber Choir in the UK.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Rod O'Brien - a couple of months ago Reply

Hi

Is this page still active? I have an important question to ask. Thanks.

Rod O’Brien

    Victoria Hopkins - a couple of months ago Reply

    Yes it is, but you can also contact us via the ‘contact’ link in the nav bar.

Brenda Adams - last year Reply

Good article thank you. It is exhausting to have constant interruptions and it was useful to have that validated. I will try to politely ignore the person in future and not get drawn into her drama and need for attention. Fortunately the rest of the group groan at her constant quips and know what she is like but it can still be very distracting when I am trying to focus on our rehearsal.

Sandra Bonetti - last year Reply

Hello again Victoria,

To your knowledge, is it common to make all standing members of a choral group re-audition every two years? I understand that you might want to do it in a children’s choir or a choir of teens as their voices can change so much. I don’t understand the need for this in an adult choir.

All members of our group received an e mail from our director stating that a new policy requires all members of the choir to re-audition every two years. Is that common?

Thanks,
Sandra B.

    Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

    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.

Sandra Bonetti - last year Reply

Thank you for replying so quickly! The handful of us that have stood up to him have definitely thought about that. We actually have a couple other choral groups “in our back pockets, so to speak. We’ve decided that right now, the fun that we have with the people in the group far outweighs the negative stuff we have to deal with (it’s really really a wonderful group of people.) If that ever changes, we will be out the door.

Thank you again!

Sandra

Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

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!

Sandra Bonetti - last year Reply

Hi Victoria,
First, thank your this excellent article. I am a member of a nonprofit volunteer choral club. We sing mostly in retirement communities. We pay dues each season. My question to you is, what if the difficult member IS the person in charge? He fits into many of the categories you outline above. Those of us who are willing to stand up to him are unsuccessful, because other members don’t want to rock the boat for fear of being let go simply for disagreeing with him. We’ve seen him let people go simply because he doesn’t like them. This effects morale. The group as a whole, enjoy each other immensely. This man is a bully, plain and simple. None of us want to leave the group because we enjoy it and each other. Do you have suggestions that might help us deal with this gentleman in a calm and diplomatic way? We’re stumped.

Owens - 3 years ago Reply

I have an issue with a choir that has only 2 Alto members. The problem with them is that nobody would like to take the consideration of balancing by moving some S2 in the Alto section. I made an announcement about the idea of moving some of them but in surprised, I received a lot of negative reactions. Im not sure about whats the undermining reasons but its difficult to improve such choir with the absence of an open-mind policy.

    Victoria Hopkins - 3 years ago Reply

    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.

Theresa Goulding - 4 years ago Reply

Hi Victoria,
I have a real tricky.
I am a newcomer to the conductor scene stepping into these shoes for the Rosetown Choristers in Te Awamutu New Zealand. The Choir is a community choir which was formed about 26 years ago. There is approx. 35 members. My predecessor had been Conductor for 9 years and has retired. I moved to Te Awamutu 6 months ago from near by City Hamilton. I joined the choir as an alto to enjoy singing and still have my mouth open that I have taken on this role. I have a musical background in teaching Piano but not in voice.
My Dilemma. We advertise as a non auditioned choir but expect that you can hold a tune or part and have some understanding of music.
I have had a lady join( followed me from church) who unfortunately does not fit into this category. I been approached by other members of the choir (in a nice way) with their concerns. I have talked to her and suggested that maybe this is not the place for her and maybe if she got singing lessons that would help with her pitch etc. She said she has learnt a lot and wants to keep coming. I have told her that she will be unable to sing at the public concert. She is still coming to practices – I don’t believe she had ‘heard’ me. Noticed last practice her music is still not in a folder, disorganised over the floor and looking very shabby. I have talked to the committee and we do not know how to further deal with this. I have suggested I give her one on one but she has not taken me up on this offer. She has never missed a practice and comes as much for the company. Help.
PS Absolutely love your podcast and articles. Have found them so helpful.

    Victoria Hopkins - 4 years ago Reply

    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.

Victoria Hopkins - 5 years ago Reply

“Calm persistence” is a lovely way of putting it, Paul.

Paul Ellis - 5 years ago Reply

It is indeed a difficult subject, it’s difficult to comment on in a public forum as some may know who we’re talking about! I don’t think that all ‘who are a little bit better than the rest of us’ seek validation. Some really believe they are better. Also some difficulties occur for non-musical reasons (the room being to hot for some and too cold for others – at the same time for example). I would add ‘Calm persistence’ to the tactics, not letting people get away with things while not making a big issue of it.

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