Handling Difficult Personalities at Your Barn or Stable

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

There’s an old saying among people who make their living around horses: “It isn’t the horses…it’s the people!” If you own or run a boarding, lesson and/or training barn, chances are good that you’ve encountered at least one (if not all) of the following: helicopter parent, control freak, game player, habitual “borrower,” late-payer and/or time monopolizer. How do you deal with all these types of people and still get your work done while maintaining your sanity? The secret lies in creating and respecting boundaries.

“Establishing clear boundaries for yourself and your business operation, and operating within those parameters using a combination of authority and finesse, is going to be your best bet for dealing with most types of difficult personalities and situations,” advised Kathy Hayes-Bloch, MSW, LCSW, a private counselor with a successful practice based in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “This is true no matter how different these issues seem to be on the surface.”

Manager, Know Thyself

Developing good customer relationships begins with knowing yourself. How do you tend to deal with complaints, confrontation and conflict? Do you have an avoidant personality, or an aggressive, reactionary style? Do you tend to take things personally, or are you good at understanding when a client’s problem is with a specific situation or issue rather than with you? What is your preferred method of communicating—e-mail, text or direct conversation? Knowing the answer to these types of questions can help you develop a customer coping strategy that can keep both of you calmer as you address the issue or complaint.

Hayes-Bloch also advised examining any past problems and issues you might have had with your boarders and clients. This can help you choose your battles and invest your energy where it will yield the most reward.

A chronic complainer who left the barn unhappy and now wants to return, for instance, is someone you probably would not welcome back since the pattern is likely to repeat no matter what you do.

10 Tips for Handling Problem People

In his article posted online in Psychology Today (September 2, 2013), Preston Ni, MSBA, offers 10 general tips for handling unreasonable people.

  1. Stay cool. The less reactive you are when faced with someone who is upset, the less likely the situation is to escalate. So, take a breath, quietly count to 10, then respond to the person. If you find you are still upset by the time you reach 10, politely suggest an alternate time to revisit the issue with your customer.
  2. Pick your people. Some people will rub you the wrong way, no matter what. Diplomatically limit your face time with these people as much as possible. Conversely, you might have boarders who are difficul, but are worth the hassle because they also bring a lot of benefit to you, your business or the barn in general.
  3. Pick your battles. You can decide when to engage, and when to leave a situation alone. Some things will work themselves out with a little time, others are more serious and require your involvement. Sometimes a third party (a vet or farrier, for instance) is the best person to resolve the conflict, and you can redirect your customer accordingly.
  4. Be proactive, not reactive. This helps you avoid personalizing the difficult situation. As Ni explained, people’s actions are usually related to themselves, not to us. This insight can help you avoid misunderstandings. For instance, the boarder who is obsessive about blanketing might have just come from a barn where the horse was not checked during temperature changes, and they might not yet understand that you always do that as part of your standard of care. Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment or two before responding to their problem.
  5. Separate the person from the issue. Every encounter has two dimensions: your relationship with the person, and the issue you are discussing. Ni offered this axiom when faced with a challenge: be soft on the person, and firm on the issue. If you have a student who is perpetually late, for instance, you might say, “You’re an excellent student and I really enjoy teaching you. However, my schedule is very full, so if you cannot make the lesson on time, we’ll have to make another arrangement.” Taking this approach keeps your relationship open and cooperative, while also establishing yourself as a strong problem solver.
  6. Focus on the other person. Ni explained that aggressors will commonly try to make you feel uncomfortable or inadequate by shifting the blame onto you. A defensive reaction to this only empowers the other person further. To avoid this trap, Ni suggested putting the spotlight back onto the aggressor by asking questions. For example, if the aggressor makes an offensive comment or attacks you verbally, you can simply respond, “If you treat me with disrespect, I’m not going to talk with you any more. Is that what you want? Let me know, and I’ll decide if I want stay or go.” Deflecting the focus from you back onto the other person can help neutralize his or her influence.
  7. Use humor when possible. A little levity can lighten an uncomfortable situation considerably. A laugh shared together can defuse tension and improve your bond with the other person.
  8. Be a leader, not a follower. In a two-person exchange, there is usually one leader. When the communication is healthy, people take turns leading and following. When the situation is hostile or difficult, the difficult person will often take the lead, set a negative tone and continually harp on what’s wrong. To defuse this ploy, Ni recommended simply changing the topic by asking a question or two. This repositions you in the lead, where you can redirect the conversation in a positive direction.
  9. Confront bullies. Have a bully in the barn? Bullies like to prey on those they perceive as weak and submissive, so your best strategy here is to stand up for yourself and your decisions. You don’t necessarily need to do this alone—if you feel safety is an issue, make sure other people are present when you push back. Also keep a paper trail of incidents involving the bully, should your management of the situation need substantiating.
  10. Establish clear consequences. Difficult people need to know that there are consequences for their transgressions. Standing firm in your commitment and delivering on these consequences keeps you in control and lets others know that similar behavior from them won’t be tolerated.

Power in the Packet

Your own responses and behavior are not the only tools for dealing with difficult people. A contract, written policy or welcome packet that spells out barn rules and delineates client expectations can help establish boundaries right from the beginning. Hayes-Bloch offered these suggestions to consider as you prepare your packet:

  • Post the packet on your barn website and also give a paper copy to your prospective customer when they first visit. Be sure to include: barn hours, including holiday policies; turnout guidelines; a fee schedule detailing such items as board, ancillary services (i.e., laundry, clipping), show services, tipping, lessons, and training; clothing and equipment requirements (shoes with heels and ASTMI-approved helmets, for instance); insurance regulations; barn policy for farrier and vet visits; general horse health policies; emergency procedures/contact information; waivers; and a copy of your release form. Presenting this information in written format is an objective way to clearly let potential customers know what’s expected before they set foot in the barn. Hayes-Bloch noteed that this also inspires confidence in your management.
  • Frame the barn rules positively. Gently remind customers that rules are there to protect them and their horses.
  • Ask the customer if he or she has read the packet. If not, schedule a time to review it with that person. A personal meeting is your insurance that the individual has read the document, understands it and has had questions and concerns answered. Ask the individual to sign a statement saying that they have reviewed and understand the document.
  • Be positive and sympathetic. If you need to set limits, do it calmly and pleasantly, keeping in mind that setting limits benefits everyone and helps create a respective barn environment where people can enjoy their time with the horses.

Take-Home Message

In spite of your best efforts, conflicts with your customers will occur. Address them calmly and clearly. Understand that these issues are usually not personal, but arise from a lack of understanding or unhappy past experiences. Establishing clear policies and learning how to stick to them, while remaining tactful, but authoritative, is a balancing act that is essential for maintaining harmony at your barn.