Dealing with difficult people during internal audits

Imagine a world where internal audits were conducted by robots and auditees were also robots. A factual statement by the robot auditor is well received by the robot auditee in a complete, rational, and objective manner. There are no emotions, no ifs, no buts, no tension.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we are stuck with human internal auditors and auditees. In these cases, emotions often rule over logic. When we find nonconformity, ego is bound to be triggered on either or both sides. We want to believe we are smart, eloquent, and all-around decent people. When we make a mistake, be it intentional or not, our ego finds it difficult to accept. Often, we resort to excuses, explanations, and playing dumb. At an early age, we’re taught to avoid mistakes, and that we must strive to do our best in all things. As we grow older, we learn the value of teachable moments brought on by mistakes. We also learn that in life, and internal audit, mistakes are inevitable; and no matter how experienced we get, we must continuously remind ourselves, almost every day.

When someone makes a mistake and it is pointed out, particularly during an audit, this acknowledgement can set off feelings of guilt, defensiveness, and animosity. Sometimes shame accompanies this guilt and after these feelings pass, we often feel anger. The pursuit of perfection manifests insecurity and defensive behavior. Sometimes, it may also inspire deceitful behavior. Internal audits can involve tension with others and good internal auditors must be equipped to deflate tension and work well with others, even when we’d like to label them a “difficult person.”

Awareness, Awareness, Awareness

Awareness is at the forefront of working with difficult people and realizing what is in and completely out of your control. Here are a few steps you can take to mitigate difficult work relationships, especially in the heat of an audit.

Build rapport

Try and connect with your clients on a personal, yet professional level. Get to know them as people, and not just clients. Learn more about their hobbies, their family and their lives. Really listen to what they say and try to respond in a thoughtful way. Good personal relationships can foster better working ones.

Take inventory of your feelings

When you’re faced with a situation during an audit that causes your emotional stress levels to rise, pause for a moment and do an inventory of your feelings. For example, perhaps a client blatantly ignores you when you ask for specific documentation. Ask yourself “why do I feel angry?” or “Why does this upset me?” By processing these feelings, you’ll give yourself a buffer of time to contemplate your next step instead of reacting impulsively. This also may shed light on situations causing you to feel a certain way. Sometimes we discover we feel angry with a client because of something that happened with a friend or loved one in the past! We all draw upon our past experiences, our personality types, and our current mood and state of mind when interacting with others.

Remove yourself from the trigger if possible

Whether it is a heated argument with a colleague or a blatant show of disrespect from a client, try to immediately remove yourself from the situation gracefully. Grab a drink of water, ask for a few minutes to collect your thoughts. If you can’t leave your physical workspace, try standing instead of sitting, or face in a different direction for a few moments. Do whatever you can in the confounds of your work environment to temporarily put yourself in a fresh headspace. This can work with clients as well. If a client seems stuck in a negative rut, ask them to take a break from you and the physical space. A few minutes separated from “the trigger,” can really help individuals put situations into perspective.

Dissociate your negative emotion

Once you’ve taken inventory of your feelings, pause and rephrase your emotion. If you are feeling angry, then rephrase this by saying to yourself “I am not angry. There is anger in me.” There is a difference. An uninvited negative emotion has penetrated you and you need to get rid of it. Remind yourself that this emotion does not represent the best of you. You can also apply this practice to the “difficult person.” For example, try saying “They are not angry. There is anger within them.” Or “They are not ignorant. There is worry/concern within them” By flipping the script and dissociating negative emotions, you can take steps to work peacefully with difficult clients.

Channel your empathy

Be attuned to the things that wake up your human side. Empathy can pacify negative emotions instantly. Can you imagine the other party’s side of things? Can you remind yourself that your client is someone’s partner, son, daughter, brother, friend? Ask yourself, what does the business mean to the client? Perhaps he or she wants to pass it down to a loved one in the future. Instead of pointing out the flaws, use the areas of improvement and nonconformance as steps to enhance the business for a better future. When you focus on the positive, your clients will be inspired to do the same.

Stay calm & treat the person with respect

Losing your temper isn’t the answer and won’t get the desired result. It will in fact ignite their ego and will cause further conflict. As the old saying goes, treat them as you would like to be treated Let your client know your intentions behind what you are doing. Sometimes they might be resistant because they think you are being difficult with them! Giving the full background of why you are doing something, why something is needed by a certain date or why something is happening, might help them empathize with your situation. Showing your vulnerability is a great way to get people on board.

Ask others for help

When possible, ask your colleagues and managers for help. They may be able to see things from a different angle and shed light on how to approach the situation. If appropriate, you can ask a close friend or family member for help as well. You never know if they have been in a similar situation until you ask.

Focus on what can be done

Rather than dwelling on what you can’t change, focus on the actionable steps you can take to forward yourself in the situation. For example, if a client hands something in late, focus on what you can do to rectify the situation. Remember you cannot control others, but you can inspire, motivate, and encourage them to modify behaviour and take inventory of their own feelings.

Body Language is Critical

In addition to the dialogue that occurs in your mind during auditing interactions, what do you feel in your body? Don’t ignore subtle signs of discomfort, triggered ego, anger, or impatience. When presented with information, do your shoulders tense? Is your brow furrowed? Are you absentmindedly clenching your fists? The entire body is engaged in a communication exchange and your body language might be perceived as hostile and trigger your client’s ego. Therefore, being mindful of your body language is critical.

Watch Your Tone of Voice

Along the same lines, we’re often not aware of the tone of voice we have during conversations. The way we think we sound in our heads and the way our voice actually sounds to others is quite different. For example, you could think you are delivering news or feedback in an even and neutral tone, but you actually sound annoyed or angry. Quite the opposite can occur as well. You may believe you sound confident and assertive, but your voice sounds soft and uncertain.

Taming the Ego

The ego is so focused on the self, it tends to make you forget the bigger picture. When we’re focused on the bigger picture, our ego-driven feelings becomes irrelevant and trivial. In fact, our minds suddenly forget our egos exist, even if it’s just for a moment. Think about team sports. All the members of the team want to do well, but it doesn’t matter who scores or who blocks. What matters is that the team works together to win the game.

Sometimes, however, the ego is too bruised and too focused on the self. This may lead to an auditee becoming difficult to work with.

You can do everything in your power to ensure you are in control of your ability to respond instead of reacting. And you can pay attention to your body language, your emotions, and your vocal tone. But there will always be instances where the reaction and perceptions of others are completely out of your control.

We all draw upon our past experiences, our personality types, and our current mood and state of mind when interacting with others. Sometimes all we can do is work on ourselves and hope to model that self-awareness will inspire our clients to do the same. Internal audit end slug

Salman Raza is founder and CEO of training and development consultancy Razalution Bureau and author of Life’s Non-Conformities: An Auditor’s Tale of Practical Application of Social, Emotional & Behavioral Strategies.

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