People Management: Coaching Session

Stephen Bubb

Q: I am a PA; my boss is grumpy and uncommunicative. Can I change him or do I have to leave?

A: Yes, dealing with a nightmare boss can sometimes be just too difficult.

You feel you have no option but to leave. But this is not always the best solution. Have you a job to go to? Before you take the new career option, look at whether change is possible.

Dealing with difficult people can often be a matter of changing your own approach. It often all boils down to communication skills and understanding the subjective experience of the person you are trying to deal with. Sometimes, we are the ones being difficult, though we put that label on other people.

How does your boss react to others? Is it just you? Rule number one is to try to see yourself through the other person's eyes. In terms of tactics to deal with the boss: refuse to fight. Use a technique where you always agree with the boss first. For example, if the boss says the diary is in a mess, reply: "Yes, I agree, it is a mess. What would you like me to do?" In other words, pass the fight back.

Be calm and assertive. Ask yourself: "how am I behaving?" Body language can be useful. If you stand up when you speak, the tone of your voice changes and becomes more varied.

A few tips from behavioural psychologists are interesting. Apparently, most people look into the other person's left eye when talking. Try looking into their right eye - it creates a higher level of contact that makes them open up to you. You can incline your head to one side, to suggest you are waiting for more. "Matching and mirroring" in conversation is a useful way of generating rapport. Now, before you think I have swallowed some training textbook, these are simply techniques. If you don't feel happy with them, don't use them.

I suggest a meeting to clear the air. If you do this, you must adopt a quiet, unemotional approach. If you say you are concerned and unhappy, don't show these emotions but be very scientific about it. Say you want to discuss this with a view to achieving a better and more productive relationship.

You can't change jobs at the drop of a hat. Work at changing the relationship!

- Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send questions to

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