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  • Mentoring Difficult Persons Requires Much of Us
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Mentoring Difficult Persons Requires Much of Us

Reader question: While trying to build a cohesive research group, one that fires on all cylinders and produces world-class data, I consistently struggle with personalities in my group who do not seem motivated to cooperate with the project direction or goals, or who simply do not fit in. What can I do to successfully address this issue without destroying the contribution being made by that person?

Expert Comments: In all walks of life, dealing with difficult personalities can at times be challenging. Try reasoning with a young, overwhelmed check-out person at the grocery store on a busy Friday evening, or communicating a “No” answer to a teenager who has made up his mind to stay out later than reasonable.  Creating good relationships with others is, in part, remembering a few simple principles and then coupling these principles with genuine kindness and seemingly infinite patience.

“I believe a few key principles frame the playing field in human communications,” says Rick Parmely,
founder of Polished and Professional, LLC
, a training and communications company based in Pennsylvania. According to Parmely, some of these principles include: knowing something about the person you are speaking to, recognizing some of your own pre-dispositions, and listening before you speak. These
principles seem pretty obvious, but let’s apply them to the research group scenario mentioned at the outset.

Understanding others is fundamental to knowing how to effectively coach them. How much do you know about that “difficult” person’s background?  What about the things he or she might be struggling with: child-care, transportation or language issues. Although you are not responsible to fix these personal issues, the support you lend by listening can prove invaluable. 

“Your reaction when a researcher wants to discuss something of a non-research nature may go a long way toward building (or burning) that essential bridge that must exist for strong team relationships,” says Parmely, who has successfully managed groups of researchers and business persons throughout his career.  He suggests occasionally taking some extra time – invite a person who is struggling to sit and talk over coffee, arrange to have lunch together, or take a walk with them on campus. Then listen. Really listen. It will pay dividends later.

What about kindness and patience? It has been said, “When in doubt, remember that the kind thing is the right thing.” Kindness goes a long way toward mitigating anger or an uncooperative spirit in any group. And patience? Displaying that quality will become essential when we do not get immediate results from conscientiously applying all the other things. Patience provides us with the opportunity to smooth out the rough sections of our own personalities. It has been said, “A man who is a master of patience is master of everything else.” George Savile

So try this for starters.  Get to know your group well and view each of them as a valuable team member, each with a story to tell.  Ask questions and then listen – closely. Get to know yourself and your reactions by listening to mentors and advisors, by encouraging open feedback, by taking queues from group members willing to give you input, and by taking a personality assessment that will provide you data and insight about your own reactions under different situations.Then, display genuine kindness and patience as you apply what you learn. Keep trying – remind yourself that nothing truly valuable comes from walking an easy path.

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