What toddlers can teach us about working with picky people

How to work with picky people

On the fourteenth round of edits, I sat befuddled when she asked if we could return to the original edit of her document. As a freelance writer, I tend to encounter a perfectionist every once in a while.

But there are perfectionists and there are picky people. This client, she was the latter.


The difference between perfectionists and picky people

Perfectionists have a standard, are usually decisive, and often can express to you exactly what they want. Once you have an understanding of that person’s needs, you simply just deliver their vision of perfection as best you can. But picky people don’t really know what they want. Therefore, they can take you on a long, frustrating, journey of guesswork until they do.

At about the four-month mark for a project that should have taken one month, I decided to switch tactics and hopefully put the project to bed. The constant return of minuscule requests sounded a lot like deciding dinner plans with my toddler. That’s when it dawned on me: Just like dealing with picky eaters, dealing with picky people in professional settings takes similar strategy.

How to deal with picky people

If you are stuck in a position to please a picky supervisor, client, or co-worker, try out these three time-saving tactics:

1. Over-communicate and clarify everything

Don’t play the guessing game with finicky people. Ask questions and push them to expound on their expectations.

If they keep wavering, it’s likely because they’re unclear on things themselves. The more precise your questions, the more they are forced to sort through their indecision and outline a well-defined direction.

Secondly, make sure you clearly state your own expectations and define what realistic outcomes are plausible. But rather than just saying, “no,” illuminate the “why.” Be prepared to support your points with statistics, outside opinions, and your own expertise or empirical data.

Connecting it back to my toddler analogy, once you’ve thoroughly explained why they can’t eat ice cream for dinner, they’re more likely to fall in line with that spaghetti option.

2. Make them feel involved

For some, work is a long labor of love, so they are understandably hypercritical of any contribution that’s not their own.

For these micromanager types, let them hold your hand through the process, but secretly, you’ll actually be leading the way. Find opportunities where they can not only approve the steps along the way, but contribute to them.

Also, remember, if you’ve had a clarifying discussion on a topic (as recommended above), you now have the ability to reshape their random thoughts into better, more purpose-driven concepts. Next, present those contributions as if those are actually their ideas — because they sort of are. If being a part of the creative process is a point of pride or even a cathartic release for them, this will influence how they look at the final product.

For example, I always try to invite my kids to help me fix a meal I’m sure they’ll fuss about. The prep work might be already done, but the simple delight of mixing is enough to excite them to try the final dish. That same feeling of accomplishment will usually translate in the work setting, too.

Give them options (very limited options)

I often give my daughter the option to decide what she wants for breakfast. I give her a very narrow selection of choices because A) no one has time to be Martha Stewart on weekday mornings and B) she would literally take 20 minutes to decide which princess cup to drink out of.

The same thing should apply to the picky people in your professional sphere. If you keep hitting the wall when it’s time for them to sign off on something, then don’t put the decision in between the baskets of “Approved” or “Not Approved.” Try to place the decision in the baskets of “Option A” and Option B.”

This puts the emphasis on forward progress and helps to keep you from going back to the drawing board. Make these two to three options diverse enough, so that at least each option will counter or resolve any potential concerns the other might raise.

Since I’ve employed my mommy dinner tricks to my freelance business, my picky clients are easier to handle — and a lot less stressful. Plus, I’ve got some untested material in my back pocket should the time come to try it out. I’ve been dying to see if the old airplane spoon trick will correlate if Ms. 14 Revisions returns for round 15.


Nina Reeder is a journalist and media manager, who has contributed to outlets such as Ebony, AOL.com, Marriott Hotels, and more. She’s a self-proclaimed foodie, but also has passions for health/wellness (which doesn’t always work out well). You can follow her on Instagram here.



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(Top image via Flickr/Dustman)



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