Dealing with Difficult People
Bill Clinton’s condolence card to North Korean dictator Kim Jung-il is a highlight of MasterClass. It holds useful lessons about dealing with difficult people.
Let me explain ,,,
In 2009 two American journalists - Lisa Ling and Euna Lee - were in China filming a documentary when they crossed into North Korea. The North Korean military promptly imprisoned the two American journalists. They were charged with false entry and sentenced to twelve years of hard labor. The Obama Administration spent months trying to secure release of the journalists. Eventually, North Korean officials indicated that they would pardon and release the American journalists if former President Clinton agreed to visit Pyongyang and sit down with Kim Jung-il.
Last month, Clinton shared details of his visit to North Korea with MasterClass, where celebrities deliver on-demand video “classes.”
As Clinton recounts his meeting with the North Korean dictator he says the first thing he asked was “why did you want me to come here?”
Kim Jung-il’s answer begins: “You were the first world leader to contact me when my father died. You beat all of our supposed friends. You contacted me before the Chinese did. Before the Russians did.”
Now, you may not be a fan of Bill Clinton. And Kim Jung-il is far worse than a ‘difficult person.' He has killed many thousands of innocent people. But high-stakes negotiations on the world stage often offer lessons we can all use …
Even the most difficult people are still just people - when I was in high school my family attended an event at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC where I recognized Senator Ted Kennedy among the guests. As I weighed whether to introduce myself to the man known as “The Lion of the Senate” my mother turned to me and said “he’s just a person with a mother, just like you.” The brief, awkward handshake I exchanged with Senator Kennedy was not particularly memorable. But I held on to those words of advice. Whomever you are trying to influence - no matter how intimidating or cold they may be - they are just a person. With feelings. And with vulnerabilities. Just like you.
Life events are opportunities for connection - When Clinton and his team learned that Kim Jung-il’s father had died they saw that moment for what it was - an opportunity to advance a relationship. Like Clinton, you may have very different values than your difficult partner. But life events - births and birthdays, weddings, graduations, death - unite us all. Don’t overlook the life events your difficult partner is experiencing.
Speed matters - Clinton made a lasting impression with Kim Jong-il not simply because he sent condolences but because they arrived earlier than North Korea’s allies. “You beat all of our supposed friends.” The underlying message is that “you put my loss above your other important priorities and that meant something to me.” Now maybe you can’t be the first to reach out to your difficult partner but there are other ways to show your respect. A handwritten letter. A call. A gift. Acting swiftly with these gestures can penetrate their difficult exterior.
So you’re not a world leader negotiating a hostage release. What does this mean for you?:
Remember that even the most difficult people are just people.
Life events are opportunities for connection.
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