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Dealing with difficult people

Of all the people you work with, who would you least like to be stranded alone with on a desert
island? While your worst nightmare is an unlikely scenario, problem people are permanent
workplace fixtures, leaving you nowhere to run. Learning some emotional survival skills can help
ease the pain of close encounters you can't avoid.

Every office has its share of difficult people who exhibit any number of annoying behaviors. The
troublemakers can be loud and arrogant, argumentative or uncommunicative. Some are chronic
complainers, some seem incapable of making even the smallest decision and some promise to do
everything but end up doing nothing. Regardless of the type of behavior or the person's position (boss,
colleague or subordinate), difficult people all have one thing in common: the ability to unnerve us and hit
our hot buttons. When you sit down to work with difficult people, your antennae go on full alert because
you instinctively know how they are going to respond to a given situation. You've been down this road

Attitude Adjustments
Communication is like a phone number, you need all the digits to get through and you need them in the
right order. When we don't pay attention to our communication and its effects on people we often create
difficult people and situations for ourselves. Likewise by becoming a conscious communicator, having the
skills and knowing the specific strategies to handle various problem behaviours, you empower yourself to
be successful in bringing out the best in people at their worst.

Why do people act like they do? Why does one person throw a tantrum and another become quiet and

Good Communications are about recognising the basic skills that you use unconsciously when you get
along with people and learning how to use them on purpose with difficult people.
There are several psychological truths about working with difficult people.
Firstly, don't expect them to radically change their personalities, because they won't. You can help to
modify their behaviour but doing so will require a commitment of time and energy.

Secondly, we perceive people as difficult because they elicit an emotional reaction in us. Thus, unless you
can learn to control that emotional reaction, you have little chance of altering the relationship.

Finally, modifying your behaviour to adapt to the behaviour of a difficult person is no easy task. You
need to be flexible, patient, clever and intuitive.

Financial managers for instance, tend to be task-driven and result-oriented. Therefore, difficult people are
about as welcome at their table as Typhoid. Nonetheless, controllers are expected to foster productive
working relationships and handle the people problems as well as the numbers problems.
When dealing with difficult people this then translates into 4 choices:-
1. Do nothing. - Suffer and become frustrated. Frustration builds and gets worse
2. Leave. - Walk away ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.
3. Change your own attitude - Seeing them and listening to them differently will make you feel
differently around them. A change of your own attitude will give
you the power and flexibility to...
4. Change your own behaviour - If you change they will have to learn new ways to deal with you.
Just as some people bring out the best/worst in you, you do the
same to others.

‘The lens of understanding’

To understand this Brinkman and Kirschner developed what they called ‘The lens of understanding’
Levels of assertiveness
There is a wide range from Passive to Aggressive
less Assertive more
Everyone responds to each situation with different levels of Assertiveness. At times of stress, challenge
or difficulty people move out of their comfort zone. This is recognisable by how they look & sound and
what they say. (shouting/mumbling or demanding/making awkward suggestions). Additionally
there are patterns to how people focus:-
ie. Task focus - absorbed in the task to the exclusion of everyone/thing
People focus - focusing exclusively on a relationship to the exclusion of everyone/thing
Within this range, behaviour can quickly change from one extreme to another. ie.
-from friendly - How are you? How was your weekend?
To businesslike - Is that project finished? Have you reached your target?
Put them together ...A person can focus on people OR task Assertively, Passively or Aggressively
For each person there is a zone of normal (best) and a zone of exaggerated (worst) behaviour
all behaviours have a purpose or intent, and when intents are thwarted, people can become difficult. They
categorize intents into four general groups, which determine how people behave in any given situation
(not an exhaustive list):
1.Get the task done - Focus on the task in hand. People are peripheral or necessesary. You
Speed up rather than slow down, Act rather than deliberate Assert rather than withdraw
May become careless and aggressive ie. leap before you look, Speak without thinking.
2. Get the task right - when getting it right is the highest priority you will ‘look before you leap’
and may not even take any action for fear of the consequences.
3. Get along with the people Tend to be less assertive with people that you want to get along with.
If this is top priority may put their needs before your own.
4. Get appreciation from the people To be heard and appreciated needs a higher level of
assertiveness and people focus. This desire is one of the most powerful motivational forces
Task Focus

known. Studies show that those who loves

their job or are happily married etc. are so because
they feel appreciated for what they do / who
they Passive Normal Aggressive are.

Behaviour changes as priorities change.

Identifying these in yourself makes it easier to
understand in others. Sometimes you get what
you People Focus
give - ie. get appreciation by giving it. But
behaviour can change over time depending on the
situation eg. at promotion time, the balance may shift dramatically from giving appreciation
to getting /needing it. As the intent changes so does the behaviour. All the intents have their
place and keeping them balanced can lead to less stress and more success.
When these intents hit a roadblock, people often overreact and behavior becomes either controlling,
perfectionistic, approval seeking or attention seeking. Brinkman and Kirschner identified 10 difficult
personalities and their resulting behaviour. But remember, you can't control or alter a bad working
relationship without making adjusting your own attitude and adopting some communication skills.

Assume positive intent. Kirschner says, “Assuming positive intent empowers you to conduct yourself in
such a way that you can bring out the best in other people. You should assume that behind all difficult
behavior there is the intent to get it done, get it right, get along, get appreciated or a combination of
intents. Even if the intent isn't true, you can still get a good response and create rapport.”

Mentally dissociate yourself from the person and the problem. When engaged in an uncomfortable
encounter, Kirschner suggests that you imagine yourself as a third-party observer, watching from a
distance, in order “to gain perspective and change your point of view.”

Model successful communicators. When faced with your difficult person, having a role model helps.
“Maybe,” suggests Kirschner, “that role model is you. Think of a time when you have behaved in a way
that you really admire. Ask yourself, 'What did I do then?'” Or maybe you know someone in the company
that doesn't seem to have much of a problem getting along with your difficult person; find out the secrets
of that successful arrangement. At times even a famous and/or fictional model works, whether the model
is Dirty Harry or Mother Teresa.

Blend. Find common ground with difficult people and adapt to their communication style. Dr. Brinkman
says that blending “reduces the differences between people and allows us to get into the same ballpark
with them. If somebody is in get-it-done mode, blending with them means getting to the point as quickly
as possible, setting time frames, etc.”

Two cautionary notes: Don't blend with words or actions to the extent that you appear to be ridiculing a
person and never emulate hostile gestures or words.
Backtrack and clarify. Backtracking is giving verbal feedback that uses some of the identical words and
terminology that your difficult person uses. Says Brinkman, “If I take your words and translate them into
what I think you are saying then I run the risk of you thinking that you are not fully understood.”
Thus, statements like, “What you are really telling me is...” may not go down too well with a difficult
person. When reiterating a person's views, use their exact words. If you’re confused about what they’re
trying to say, ask open-ended questions to let them clarify, in their own words, what they are telling you.
Difficult people sometimes need interrupting. A general strategy for this is to say the person's name a few
times, apologize for interrupting and explain why you interrupted. A polite interruption goes something
like: “Frank, Frank. Sorry for interrupting you, but I just wanted to be sure I understand. ...”

The 10 Most Unwanted List

The following behaviors and how to cope with each were developed by Brinkman and Kirschner.
1. Tanks are pushy and aggressive because they want to get things done. Some are loud and angry while
others are quiet and intense. Attacks by Tanks usually feel personal (though they usually aren't) and they
evoke very emotional reactions. When bombarded by a Tank, some people will meet anger with anger -
not good since that only escalates the battle. Impatient Tanks don't want to hear lots of excuses and strong
defensive behaviour this will only be met with a greater offensive. As Brinkman and Kirschner put it, “If
a Tank says you're a genetic mistake, it's futile to offer your mother's pre-natal records as proof that you’re
Action Plan: Stay cool, look the Tank in the eye and hold your ground. If the attack is short and made
by an irrational boss, you may choose to wait it out and say something like, “If that's all, I'm going to get
back to work,” and then make a calm exit. If the situation demands a response, you can politely interrupt,
backtrack the main points of the attack and briefly give your point of view by saying, “The way I see it ...”
You'll rarely win a war of words with Tanks, but you can gain their respect with an assertive, yet
controlled, demeanor.

2. Snipers come in two varieties, friendly and unfriendly, but both use sarcastic comments to embarrass
you. Unfriendly Snipers want to get things done and feel thwarted when something or somebody gets in
their way. They may be jealous of you or even hold a grudge against you. Friendly Snipers just want to be
appreciated at work, and they make rude comments to get attention. For example, as you start a staff
meeting, you hear a back-row Sniper mutter, “Here's Mack [referring to you] in another custom-made suit
that cost less than $100.”

Action Plan: Unfriendly Snipers need to be pulled out of hiding. At the meeting, you should stop in
mid-sentence and say to the Sniper, “I heard you say [backtrack the Sniper's suit comment]. When you say
that, what are you really trying to say?” Your voice should convey curiosity, even amusement, but should
not convey anger or sarcasm. Friendly Snipers, on the other hand, think they are making points at the
office with their playful, teasing remarks. Don't put the spotlight on them in public but meet in private to
let them know that you don't find their humour very amusing.

3. Know-It-Alls behavioural intent is to get things done and they know exactly how to do everything.
Their endless arguments and dedication to detail can drive you crazy. Because Know-It-Alls need to be
right, they want to control all situations and view alternative ideas as a challenge to their knowledge and
abilities. For the most part, they are very smart and competent, which makes it even harder to get them to
listen to your point of view.

Action Plan: Know-It-Alls won't listen to you until they are sure you understand their brilliant thinking.
You'll have to repeat their ideas out loud (backtracking) or they will keep telling you the same thing over
and over again. Because opposing points of view are a threat to Know-It-Alls, you may want to present
your thoughts in an indirect manner by saying something like, “Perhaps we might consider ...” Brinkman
and Kirschner say that extreme patience is vital when dealing with Know-It-Alls, and “you may have to
take your anti-nausea pills before talking to them.”
4. Think-They-Know-It-Alls want attention and appreciation, thus they are eager to offer
opinions. They know just enough on a subject to speak up, but often their logic is faulty, and they are
prone to exaggerations and half-truths. When you know their position is weak, it's tempting to quickly
confront them and end to their ramblings. Public humiliation, though, is not a good idea. When shunned
and dismissed, Think-They-Know-It-Alls will become stressed out and just try harder to be recognized.

Action Plan: Assume positive intent (that they really want to help solve a problem) and backtrack a
good comment when they make one. When they get out of hand, however, you have to stop them. For
example, if Mary is prone to generalization (“Everybody agrees that this method...”), then ask her, “Who
specifically...?” When you ask for specific back-up information, Think-They-Know-It-Alls may recede
into the background. They want you to like them more than they want you to like their ideas. If you treat
them with respect and pay attention to their good ideas, they may lessen their grandstanding behaviour.

5. Grenades. Tanks explode to get something done, but Grenades explode because they aren't getting
respect and approval. They seem to save up their anger and their blowups are unpredictable. Even though
they regret the outbursts, Grenades just can't seem to prevent them.

Action Plan: When Grenades detonate, stay calm and take control of the situation. You'll have to get
their attention by interrupting the tantrum and may have to raise your voice so they will hear you. Show
concern as you try to calm them down. Backtrack so they know you are listening. It's best to allow a
cooling-off period before having a discussion to resolve the Grenade's problem. The important issue: find
out what is pulling out the Grenade's pin so you can prevent future explosions.

6. Yes People over-commit because they can't say no, and they can't say no because they want to get
along with everyone in the office. When the work doesn't get done and co-workers get angry, Yes People
feel terrible and then become resentful because everyone expects so much from them.

Action Plan: You need commitments you can count on and that won't happen unless you develop open,
honest lines of communication. Yes People are often disorganized and poor planners so help them
manage their time and set realistic goals. When they show improvement, give them positive feedback.

7. Maybe People. Like Yes People, Maybe People want approval, and they avoid disapproval by
avoiding decisions. Decisions mean that somebody wins and somebody loses, and Maybe People don't
want to be responsible for upsetting anyone. Additionally, they don't want the blame for a bad decision.

Action Plan: Chronic procrastinators, Maybe People need to devise a system for making decisions and
then need to be motivated to use that system. When helping them, you need to uncover the key barriers
that make them indecisive without criticizing or bullying them.
8. Nothing People. They give very little feedback, verbal or nonverbal. They come in two types: the
timid person whose intent is to get along and the perfectionist who wants to get the work done right but
can't convince everyone to follow a prescribed course of action. The get-along types clam up because they
want to avoid conflict. The perfectionist types figure that nobody recognizes their perfect plan so they let
everyone else sail the ship.

Action Plan: Unless you get Nothing People to talk, you are at a dead end. Ask open-ended questions
like, “How do you think we should proceed?” When Nothing People finally speak, make sure they know
you are listening. Lean forward, look interested and repeat some of their statements.

9. No People. Brinkman and Kirschner sum them up: “More deadly to morale than a speeding bullet,
more powerful than hope, able to defeat big ideas with a single syllable.” They are task-focused and are
the standard bearers for perfectionism. Thus, they home in on why plans won't work and why mistakes are

Action Plan: Push them to become more positive and they will only become more negative. Thus,
assume positive intent (they want to get a job done right) and try not to let them drag you down. View
them as an early warning system and pick through their criticisms to see if any have merit. You might try
challenging them: “You are right, Marsha. This is a hopeless situation. Nobody can solve it — not even
you” (maybe Marsha will accept the challenge).

10. Whiners. Their bag of woes is overflowing. Like the No People, Whiners want to get everything
done right but nothing ever turns out as well as it should. Since they feel hopeless to change anything,
they just get better and better at complaining.

Action Plan: Grit your teeth and listen to them. If you can identify what's ailing them, you can try to
find solutions. Get them to be definitive about complaints and ask specific questions to resolve problems:
“What do you need to improve the situation?” If you turn the Whiner into a problem solver, the feeling of
hopelessness should diminish.

When All Else Fails

You're stuck with the difficult person. You aren't about to leave your job and neither is the difficult person.
You think you have made an admirable effort to communicate, to be flexible and patient, but nothing
works; it's hopeless. Dr. Brinkman says, “Try again, because usually we think we are at that point way
before we've tried everything.”

Most importantly, continue to make attitude adjustments so the difficult person doesn't continually throw
you off stride. Kirschner says that a little attitudinal humor can go a long way. Try imagining a scenario
worse than working with the difficult person, like “I could be handcuffed to this person and stranded on a
desert island.” Or use the Alan Kirshner go-beyond technique (named after Rick Kirschner's father): “100
years from now, what difference will any of this make?”