4 Ways to Engage People Who Don't Want to be Happy
4 Ways to Engage People Who Don't Want to be Happy

You know what to do with an underperforming employee, but what about an efficient but difficult one?

I’m a strong believer that you can’t be too positive or too empathetic in the business world. Yes, a lot of places of business are far from that ideal, but that’s exactly why you should distinguish yourself from the dog-eat-dog norm and try to make your work life a place of caring and sensitivity.

Why? It’s because, as I never get tired of saying, love is just damn good business.

And 90 percent of the time, it works the way you’d expect. People respond to warmth and consideration, they appreciate the extra attention, and they become more than just colleagues or clients– they become friends. Life is good!

What about the other 10 percent? Those are tough. This 10 percent might be the co-worker who barricades herself in her office with computer screens strategically placed so nobody can see her, then only responds with monosyllabic messages. Or it’s the customer who walks up to your service area already mad, with no clear reason why, and won’t make eye contact. Or maybe it’s the client who continues to do business with you year after year, but will never smile and always finds fault with your efforts even as he signs on the dotted line to accept them.

I’ve learned how to deal with these types the hard way. Here are my suggestions for engaging all of those people:

1. You can’t change them by doubling down on the friendliness.

It’s tempting to push it when someone rejects you. But if you’re dealing with someone who is already withdrawn or negative, and you come at them in a sticky-sweet, over-the-top way, it can feel almost like an act of aggression.

Even if you’re well intentioned and think this is the best way to break through the person’s defenses, to them it’s going to feel like you are mocking them or issuing a challenge as to who has the stronger personality. Instead:

2. Stop needing people to be in the mood you want them to be in.

Every marriage counselor or dorm adviser will tell you the same thing: the only behavior you can truly control is your own. It’s amazing how much less power you give others to ruin your day if you focus on your own reaction and stop focusing on theirs.

So, first, truly sit with that knowledge and accept it. Once you do, start behaving without malice and without an agenda toward the difficult person: friendly, but not pushy; professional, but not cold; there if they want to talk to you, fine if they don’t.

3. Don’t give the negative person any ammunition to use against you.

It’s like when you meet a hypochondriac on the street. Instead of asking, “How are you?” (you know you’ll get a full organ recital of woes), you should say, “You look great! It’s wonderful to see you!”

That’s a thing called “appreciative inquiry,” a term I learned from organizational development specialist David Cooperrider. Cooperrider, best selling author and Professor of Social
Entrepreneurship and Faculty Director at the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at Case Western Reserve University, knows a little something about the subject which he’s written about in over 20 books and 60 published articles.

One of appreciative inquiry core ideas is that you should focus on strengths, not spend all your time trying to fix or minimize weaknesses.

Ask questions like, “What good things came out of the meeting?” “What would you like to see happen now?” “What interesting new ideas did you learn from this project?” Little by little, guide the negative person toward the light, by reframing ideas (gently) from negative or critical to positive or constructive.

4. Let them feel that you hear and understand them, even if you don’t get a response.

Without becoming their therapist, you should be a good listener. That’s true for everyone you come in contact with, but even more for the person who is having trouble explaining or who has some hidden anger you can’t figure out.

You can guide the conversation toward neutral topics by gently acknowledging what they are saying before moving on to something new. Being positive, yet never demanding that other people respond to you in a set way, can work wonders to bring you closer together. You may not disarm the angry or negative person, but you are certainly engaging on a deeper level than just being the rock they are banging their head against.

Letting other people “feel the love” is a process, and you should never forget that you will have to approach each person just a little bit differently.