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Coping with Difficult People by Nancy Gerber

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 whenever possible.

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!

Complainers find fault with everything. They emit a constant stream of blame and accusation. It's their job is to point out the problems, and everyone else's to solve them. Listen closely and acknowledge their complaints WITHOUT agreeing or apologizing. Paraphrase their concerns and check for accuracy. Don't get sucked into an A-D-R pattern (accusation-defense-reaccusation). Move on to problem solving. Ask: "I have ten minutes before my next appointment - what do you want to accomplish by then?"

Whiners are often subordinate, or inexperienced, but trying to be equals. Give them an inch, they'll take a mile! They don't usually compromise, are self-righteous and often throw tantrums when they don't get their way. They blame others when things go wrong. Their favorite line: "It's not fair!" Set specific behavioral parameters early on, put them in writing, and stick to them. Don't accept short cuts or sloppy work -- hold them accountable. Prepare for and resist their attempts at provoking guilt and/or pity. Keep them on track with clarity, calm and facts.

You can make progress with these challenging people. Work to MINIMIZE THE IMPACT of the difficult behavior IN THE IMMEDIATE SITUATION and GET ON WITH THE BUSINESS AT HAND. Become a detached observer of "the game." Thoroughly evaluate the situation, and develop and practice coping strategies. Implement your plan, monitor your progress and modify it as necessary.

Firmly cultivate a realistic attitude. Accept the difficult person as they are. Don't take their behavior personally. Stop wishing they were different. Aim to reestablish the balance of power and relate on equal terms - to communicate rather than win.


Nancy Gerber, President of [sstones.com parked domain] is a trainer, consultant, and success coach. Her work emphasizes immediately useful, "real-life" skills. Call 770-931-4514 or e-mail: nbg@pla-netx.com for program schedule and further information.

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