Working With and Handling Difficult People

The following is an excerpt taken from the seminar series “Careermoves” taught by feature film producer Phil Nemy.

As you begin working in the entertainment industry, you are bound to come across a few people who are difficult to deal with on a regular basis. Some people can be any combination of insensitive, nasty, phony, abusive, demeaning, self-serving, intimidating, overly-competitive and game players. When this happens, you have four choices:

1. You can do nothing: this may lead to a lot of stress, stomach aches, etc.
2. You can quit: this is okay, as long as you don’t make a habit of quitting.
3. You can change your behavior towards the person.
4. You can change your attitude towards the person.

Your best bet IS to change your behavior or attitude, because your ultimate goal is to get the job done, learn as much as you can from the experience, and get on with your career.

This business can bring out the best and the worst in people. When faced with a difficult person, consider learning the cause of the person’s bad behavior. Try putting yourself in their shoes. It could be that they are tremendously insecure. Or maybe they are under an enormous amount of pressure to deliver high-quality service on a consistent basis.

Whatever the case may be, there are choices you can make when faced with individuals like this that can make the experience less volatile. For example, let the person know you’re there to help. Let them know you’re there to do the best job you can.

Try putting your bruised feelings aside. Carrying around ill feelings all day long will inhibit your ability to do your best work. Let the hurt feelings go by telling yourself that the attack you sustained came from an insecure soul who must beat up on others to feel good about themselves. Create an emotional distance from the individual and get your OWN ego out of it.

If a person continues to be difficult, try directing the offender’s attention to the job at hand. Remind the person that you’re both there for the same purpose.

Another tactic: try offering up the phrase “What can I do to help you?” to diffuse a tense situation. It’s often difficult to continue destructive behavior when one is sympathetic to another person’s position. Let the person know you’re on their side.

In those instances, when dealing with a difficult person truly gets out of control and becomes a loud, abusive confrontation, remember to never strike back using sentences that start with “you”, as in: “You’re always such a jerk” or “You never listen to what anyone else has to say.” Those are attacks, and you’ll only make the situation worse.

Instead, use sentences that start with “I” (make it about you), like: “I know you’re angry, but this is important to me, too” or “I’m having trouble understanding this — let’s work it out together.”

Monitor your tone when speaking to the other person and get your point across without being offensive or recognize you may face losing the other person’s cooperation and understanding.

As a rule, don’t confront anyone in a public place. Find the right time and the right place to have the discussion. If you think you may lose your temper, excuse yourself, walk out of the room, give yourself distance from the person and take a short break. Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. Take a short walk if you think it will help. But make sure you give yourself the necessary time to pull yourself together so your emotions won’t get the best of you. Falling apart in front of others eliminates your base of power and your calm, focus, soulful place to mediate and negotiate.

There is a way to command the respect of the other person without being aggressive and without withdrawing or giving up your ground. In this instance, look the other person in the eye, wait for the person to stop, and cut to the chase by saying, “the way I see it is…” or “I’ll be happy to discuss this later when you’re calmer.” When communicating with them, be straight-forwarded, direct, calm, understanding, but firm. Communicate your understanding of the job and offer options to resolve the situation.

A line producer I know was working on a film with a prominent producer known to be a real screamer and often a difficult person to work with. The producer was the kind of person who would fire and rehire his assistant more than once in the same day. This producer’s assistants drop faster than ducks in a shooting gallery. He knows a lot of people so you never wanted to cross him.

As difficult as he can be, I have a great deal of respect for his creative eye, his creative producing skills, and his taste in material. I shared this respect for him with the line producer I knew.

The line producer had worked with this producer once before and he explained that it was a difficult experience but that he was doing it again because he loved the director of the film and wanted to support him. And the director had worked with the producer and insisted that the studio employ the producer on the film.

The line producer decided to try something new with the producer. At the start of the film, he took the producer to dinner and said to him that he looked forward to working with both the producer and the director again. But then he added that if the producer ever screamed at him the way he screamed at other people, he’d walk off the film and never look back. The producer said fine, and that was that.

They did the film together and although there were tense moments, the producer never once screamed at the line producer. As you can see, it’s perfectly okay to stand up to someone like that, but be prepared to follow through should it not turn out in your favor.

Working with difficult people can make the job that much harder. Sometimes, tough decisions must be made. In this situation, only you can decide if it’s worth it. Is your need for the paycheck, the credit or the experience more important than what you have to endure? Sometimes it is.

Some people just refuse to work for or with the notorious big-ego, bad-temper-types, and if you were to ask them why, they’d simply say, “Because life is too short”. Steven Spielberg is known to be incredibly demanding of his key crew heads. But everyone that works with Steven says that as one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today, he pushes each person to do their best work. When working with him, they learn a great deal, get to work on some pretty extraordinary projects with some amazing international crews and state-of-the art equipment. They’ve figured out how to let the stress roll off their backs.

To quote one of them: “I’ve done some of my best work and have accomplished more than I ever thought I was capable of when working for people who were overly demanding and wouldn’t accept anything less. I couldn’t handle that kind of stress on a regular basis, but once in a while, it’s all right.”

When a situation is stressful or tense, and you can tell that your co-workers or subordinates are feeling it, let them know you appreciate them. Not everyone represents the worst aspects of the business. Some are in the gray area – not the best, a bit frantic, neurotic or disorganized, but not bad people. Some are genuinely decent, honest, caring people. When you work for good ones, do the best job you can for them. Let them know how much they’re appreciated. Tell them how much you would like to work with them again. And most importantly, stay in touch with them.

In most entertainment careers, there will come a time when you’re faced with working with or for a difficult person. Remember: in these situations, don’t burn any bridges. In this industry, your success, or at least your continual employment, relies on maintaining contacts. If you tell someone off, make a scene, dramatically get your point across, bad-mouth the offenders, cop an attitude, walk out in an indignant huff, or any combination of the above, you do this at your own risk.

These actions can result in the person you’ve just told off bad-mouthing you when called on for a reference. Careers have been ruined over these types of situations. People change and may, later on, be in a position to help or recommend you. So, try to finish your project and conveniently never be available to work with this person again. Don’t let one egomaniacal jerk or one miserable work experience damage your career by doing something you’re going to regret later on.

Politics plays a big part in learning how to work with difficult people. The more politically adept you are at handling difficult people, the more you’ll be in demand for work. Here’s a list of general rules that may help you become a better political player:

• Learn to be a team player without feeling threatened.
• Surround yourself with the smartest and the best people. Take pride in their talents and abilities. Remember: the better your team, the better you look.
• You can’t be a team player if you have your own agenda.
• Honor your chain of command.
• Don’t fight the fights you can’t win. If you choose to get into it with someone, consider the dynamics and potential consequences of doing so.
• Start all new relationships by finding some common ground.
• When someone is being difficult, try to understand where the other person is coming from and attempt to enlist his or her logic in finding a reasonable conclusion.
• Create a work environment that’s enjoyable, not fearful.
• Find value in everyone with whom you work.
• Treat every person with respect, no matter what his or her position.
• Define common objectives: you’re all partners in the same process.
• Propose ways to share the responsibilities.
• Be firm when necessary. Be able to make hard decisions.
• Come from a place of respect and not intimidation.
• Hold on to your integrity and humanity.

Be fair and honest and people will follow you to the ends of the earth.