Coping with Difficult People
Even the best of us commit an occasional faux-pas - our behavior annoys, confuses,
frustrates or embarrasses someone. What characteristics distinguish intermittent human
insensitivity from a truly "difficult" person?
Is their behavior habitually troublesome? Does nearly everyone see them as a problem,
not just those who are overly sensitive or easily intimidated? Are they unaware that
others see them this way? Do the long-term effects and costs of their behavior escape
them? Are their actions usually focused on gaining control by keeping others off balance
and unable to act effectively? (If you answered "no", to most of these questions, perhaps
YOU are the difficult person! Get some honest feedback.)
Difficult people have limited coping skills. Whatever their goal - to be left alone, to
avoid making a decision, to be liked - the discovery over the years that a particular set
of actions gets the results they desire has shaped their behavior.
Changing our behavior and mindset is the key to coping with these folks. When we
respond differently than expected, so do they.
Defining specific behavior enables us to develop suitable responses that will establish
better communication. Here are a few examples, mostly drawn from Dr. Robert Bramson's
excellent book, Coping With Difficult People.
Hostile/Aggressives overwhelm you with the force of their personalities. Since a
large part of their "game" is playing to the crowd, it's best to deal with them one-on-one
Sherman Tanks are abusive, intimidating, and abrupt. They attack you, not just
your behavior. In short, they are bullies. Stand up to them without attacking. Use their
name often to get their attention. Be firm rather than aggressive. Maintain eye contact
and use assertive body language. State your opinions firmly rather than arguing or cutting
them down. ("Looks like we have a difference of opinion, Mr. Smith.") When they interrupt,
as they frequently do, don't worry about being polite, interrupt them right back. ("Ms.
Brown, you interrupted me. I was about to say ... "). Be prepared for an interesting
twist - once you've stood up to them, they'll probably get quite friendly!
Interrogators are similar to Sherman Tanks, but they bully with their intellect
rather than physical presence. They drill you with questions and play mind games. Do your
homework and be prepared. Set a specific agenda, preferably in writing, and be assertive
and firm about sticking to it. Maintain eye contact and a calm demeanor. Acknowledge their
concerns and address them as appropriate, but don't hesitate to "table" a topic for the
next meeting if it digresses form the agreed-upon agenda.
Snipers maintain a cover of politeness while taking pot shots. They use
innuendo, hostile teasing and sarcastic asides. They say, "What's the matter, can't you
take a joke? You're just too sensitive!" Refuse that indirect attack - smoke them out!
Ask, "Did you mean that?" Give an alternative to a direct contest by instituting an
on-going problem solving process. Call them on their behavior every time - don't let them
get away with it!