July 28, 2011

How to Handle Difficult People - It's Your Choice!

How to end the emotional tug-of-war?
How to confront and handle difficult, irrational, or abusive people?
We all know people we would describe as ‘difficult’. They are everywhere around us – in our home, at the office, in clubs. Difficult people can range from mildly irritating to the totally impossible to deal with. What makes them difficult is their problem behaviour. 
They have a way of bringing us down to get the results they want. 
Our emotions are what drive us back to our most basic survival instinct: react and attack back to defend ourselves. We may lose track of our higher selves, our intelligence and our ability to control our responses. Waiting and worrying, the other common “solution”, also allows the problem to get worse while giving you stress.
“Individuals behave in a difficult manner because they have learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective action,” says Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D, author of Coping with Difficult People.
While we cannot avoid crossing paths with difficult people – we can learn how to cope with difficult people.

Step 1: Define the nature of difficult behaviour

Begin by examining that specific behaviour and its context. Clarify the problem by asking yourself the following questions:
Why do I feel uncomfortable and frustrated?
What exactly is happening?
Why does it happen?
Every behaviour has a purpose. People do what they do based on what seems to be most important for any given moment. Try to explore why your counterpart is behaving in such a fashion.

Evaluate if their behaviour is:
1. Simply their personality style (controlling behaviour, seeks approval behaviour, seeks attention behaviour, perfectionist)
2. A cultural tendency
3. A specific tactic they are using to intimidate you
4. Due to something that recently happened in their life

To make it easier for you to understand some more common difficult personality types and their behaviour styles , we are providing below the Dr. Bramson’s  classification of seven common types of difficult people.

1. Openly Aggressive People

These people are the bullies who are often abusive and intimidating. They believe their “victims” are weak and deserve the treatment they give them. They are therefore stimulated by signs of weakness. There are three subtypes in this group.

Sherman Tank
Attack not just your idea or project, but you personally as well
Confrontational, pointed and angry
The ultimate in pushy behaviour

Feel very strongly about how others should think and act
Rude comments, biting sarcasm
Attempts to make you look foolish

After initial calm, explodes into uncontrolled ranting and raving

2. Complainers

● Feel overwhelmed by an unfair world
● Bring their problems to you

Complainers find fault with everything. These are fearful people who have little faith in themselves and others because they believe in a hostile world. 

It can be difficult to recognize a true Complainer. They are skilled at starting problems in such a critical manner that it is hard to separate real problems from complaints. And people around them become defensive because they know the Complainer will be the first to blame them if something goes wrong. 

Complainers themselves feel powerless to correct the situations they complain about. Relying on others to fix the problem perpetuates their own belief that they are without blame or fault.
To help you If you can find out why your counterpart is behaving in a certain way, your best approach may become clear.

3. Clams

● No verbal feedback
● No non-verbal feedback
● Nothing

These people react to questions you have posed, controversial statements you have made, and indeed any situation they deem disagreeable, by clamming up. Just when you want a response, they may grunt, give a no or yes or more likely say nothing. 

It is difficult to discern a Clam from a quiet person. However, quiet people are not likely to avoid direct questions, whereas Clams are. For instance, you have asked a colleague to not park so close to your car in the company parking lot. A Clam will say nothing. A quiet person will at least respond in some way.

 The biggest problem in dealing with Clams is you don’t know what the silence or lack of response means.

4. Super – Agreeables

What is so difficult about communicating with someone who is always pleasant and supportive of your ideas ? Nothing, until you want that person to do something for you. 

Super-Agreeables want to be liked and accepted by everyone, so to achieve this they are outgoing, sociable and very personable. However, the danger here is they will agree with you about one thing and then agree with the next person whose ideas are contrary to yours. At work, the Super-Agreeable will volunteer to do every job and get none of them done.

5. “NO Person”

● Able to defeat big ideas with a single syllable
● Deadly to morale

6. “Know –it-All”

● Has a low tolerance for correction and contradiction

7.” Maybe Person”

● Procrastinates in hope that a better choice will present itself

Indecisives, or Maybe Persons , are very helpful people; however, they put off making decisions which might upset someone. The serious problem here is that indecisiveness can work – most unmade decisions become irrelevant through time. For them , not making a decision is a compromise between being honest and not hurting someone.

Once you’ve thought about the situation and identified the specific types of behaviour that bother you, you’ll probably want to go on to qualifying your acceptance of the behaviour by evaluating its positive and negative effects.

Step 2: Qualifying

Understanding the motives and reasons for problem behaviour makes solving the problem much easier. Before you act, pay attention to the effects of the behaviour. Once you know how the behaviour fits into your life, and how severe the effects are, you may decide that you are willing to accept the behavour. However, most people who encounter inconsiderate behaviour usually want to modify some aspect of the situation.
Here is What Doesn’t Work: 
1. Sending solutions
Common phrases that indicate solving include: “Stop doing.. and start...”, “What if you...”, “Why don’t you..” Telling people what to do does not work. The more you push solutions on people, the more they pull away from you and your suggestion. 
2. Moralizing
Common phrases that indicate moralizing include: “You should..”, “It would be good for you to..”, “Stop doing wrong..” 
3. Complaints
“I wish Bill wasn’t so damn annoying.” If you complain, you are the difficult person. You become no better than the person you try to change. 
4. Criticism
People criticize to build change. “I’m results-focused. I criticize people to get things done.” Avoid criticism because it intensifies conflict. Criticized individuals feel unworthy and less important.

Step 3: Strategies to manage difficult behaviours

Generally, to deal with any type of difficult behaviour you have 4 choices:
1st Choice: Stay and do nothing
2nd Choice: Remove the person from your life
3rd Choice: Change your behaviour
4th Choice: Change your attitude

1st Choice: Stay and do nothing

Ask yourself two questions:
“If I do not respond, what is the worst thing that can result from it?”
“If I do respond, what is the worst thing that can result from it?”
Answering these questions often ads perspective to the situation, and you’ll realize that nothing good will come out of reacting. Your energy will be wasted, and your inner space disturbed.
Some people react to difficult people by accepting their behaviour. They often find confrontation unpleasant and would prefer to overlook the matter completely. They have the right to express their own opinions and we have the right and will power to choose our responses. We can choose peace or we can choose conflict. If this will not make you to feel like a victim, it can be your choice.

2nd Choice: Remove the person from your life

Start with listing out things in your life most important to you. 
Then ask yourself:, “Will a communication with this person contribute to the things that matter most to me?”.

Sometimes it’s the best option. If your landlord is really bad, consider moving. If your boss or co-workers are terrible, leave. 
Eleanor Reesevelt said,” You are nobody’s victim without your permission.”

3rd Choice: Change your behaviour

Difficult people have learned, often from childhood that being difficult puts other people at a disadvantage. It’s that disadvantage they count on to get the results they want. 
Possibly the most critical thing you need remember is not to let difficult people get the upper hand – remain on an equal basis with them. If you will change the way you deal with people and they will need to learn new ways to deal with you.
We highly recommend reading:
Active Listening as an Anger Managment Technique

Once you ‘ve clarified the issue and understand the details of the problem behaviour and its causes, you will be able to take charge of an unpleasant situation and redirect its result.

Here is some strategies to cope with some common types of difficult people:

Sherman Tank: 

Your new behaviour: assertive , polite, professional  
Your goal:
assertively express your own views, not try to win a battle of right and wrong.

The most important aspect of coping with Sherman Tanks is to stand up for yourself, don’t fight and turn the Tank into a constructive discussion. Openly aggressive people expect others to either run away from them or react with rage.  
It is important to make your difference of opinion known and understood. Throughout the attack, in whatever form it takes, continue to reassert that your opinion differs and why.  
You may have to interrupt Sherman Tanks to get into the conversation because they are not likely to pause to giver you the chance. To get their attention, say their name in a loud, clear voice. 

Present your own point of view, in an assertive fashion, by using phrases such as “In my opinion...”; “I disagree with you...”.

In this way , you are not telling the Sherman Tank what to do, but rather you are expressing your opinions.

Avoid public situations where the Tank’s pride demands victory at all costs. If possible, invite him aside for a private chat. Don’t be surprised if you only gain trust and respect from a Sherman Tank after you start standing up for yourself.


Your new behaviour: assertive , polite, professional
Your goal: to give them an alternative to a direct conflict by asking questions rather than making statements

Snipers, like Sherman Tanks, feel very strongly about how others should think and act.
The first step in coping with Snipers is to force them out into the open. Ask questions like, “That sounded like a dig. Was it?”. Then, if your Sniper responds by ridiculing you even further, say something like,” Sounds like you are ridiculing me. Are you?”; “ That sounds like you are making fun of me. Are you?”. A sniper usually replies to such accusations with denial,” I am only joking.”

By asking the questions, you have stood up to the Sniper and are ready to take the next step towards coping. 
Don’t agree with the Sniper’s criticisms. Try to discover the real problem and deal with it. Remember, that questioning covert attacks will reduce the chance for similar attacks in the future.


Your new behaviour: assertive , patient , polite, professional
Your goal: to wait for the person to run out of some steam, then assert your own opinions with confidence

To cope with an Exploder, wait for the outburst to come to an end. It is common for Exploders to suddenly realize where they are and what they are doing and then to quiet very quickly. But, if there doesn’t seem to be an imminent pause in the explosion, you should try to bring it to a close. Try saying “Right, Right!” “Wait a minute” or “Yes. Yes!” with enough loudness that they can hear. Suddenly standing up may also catch their attention long enough to break the tantrum.
Once Exploders have settled down, make sure they know you take them seriously by saying things like “ I can see this is very important to you and I would like to talk about it, but not like this.’


Your new behaviour: cooperative with optimism
Your goal: to help with to see the other side of the situation

The one successful way of coping with Complainers is to help them take a problem – solving perspective toward their complaints.

The first step is to listen to their complaints. Then acknowledge what they are saying by repeating it back to them, and you may have to interrupt them to do this. As you acknowledge, use specific examples to avoid words like never and always – two of the Complainer’s favourites.

Don’t agree with the Complainer, and there is a difference between acknowledge and agree. Agreeing with the Complainer is admitting your role in the problems. You are validating the belief that they are blameless and the responsibility is all yours.
Now, move quickly into problem-solving. Ask the Complainer questions to help identify the real source of the problem. Help the Complainer to see the other side of the situation.

Silent People:

Your new behaviour: cooperative
Your goal: to get them to talk

Ask them questions that can’t be answered with just a “Yes” or “no”, such as, “Why is it uncomfortable for you to answer my questions?”; “How do you feel about this?” or “What are your ideas?”. Then wait at least one full minute before you say anything. This long silence may make them uncomfortable enough to say something.

To stop yourself from jumping in with more conversation, be to the point and say something like”I expected you to say something, and you are not. What does that mean?(another open-ended question).

If you are still at an impasse, begin to give your thoughts, observations or ideas on the matter and once again, end with an open-ended question. Be prepared at this point, to hear something like “Can I go now?” from them. “Not yet, I still have some other things on my mind”, is a good response. Using the following statements or questions may help the silent people to get started.
“You look distressed.”; “ Don’t worry about starting at the beginning. What’s on your mind right now?”. If and when they do start talking, listen carefully.


Your new behaviour: cooperative, task focus
Your goal: to avoid getting drawn in to their negativity and stay with your own action plan

Negativists are extremely pessimistic and more bitter than complainers. Usually, they feel defeated or powerless in regard to the situation. And the more you try to solve a problem or improve a situation, the more negative they become.
When coping with Negativists, don’t try to persuade them out of their pessimism. State your own realistic optimism but don’t argue with their point of view. If a new idea is being considered, quickly point out the possible negative repercussions yourself and then include the Negativist in the discussion which you are leading. If it seems impossible to get the Negativist seeing things your way, then you may have to take action on your own and simply announce your plans to the Negativist.


Your new behaviour: assertive
Your goal: to be aware for their behaviour in yourself

When dealing with a think-they-know-it-all, state the facts as an alternative version. Offering an alternative version will give them a way out while still looking smart and important.
Ask question to introduce the possible alternatives, “I realize this may not be what we will be doing , but could we consider this...”. At some point in the conversation , they will realize you are an expert and will panic. Allow them to save themselves from embarrassment.

4th Choice: Change your attitude about the person

Change your attitude will set you free from your reaction to the problem you see in their behaviour. You need to learn to see them differently, listen to them differently and feel differently around them.

Always remember that people who irritate us usually have something to show us about ourselves. For example, being around your chronically late friend can remind you how quick-tempered and impatient you can be. 
Ask yourself “Does it matter if I am right?” If yes, then ask “Why do I need to be right? What will I gain?”. 
Be proactive, not reactive. Reactive persons blame circumstances for their reality. Proactive persons create what they want regardless of constricting circumstances. Create a value in yourself to be proactive and treat people with respect and you will feel proud, empowered, and in control of your life – regardless of whether you successfully handle the situation.
Don’t blame people for how they make you feel. The degree you are a victim of someone’s behaviour controls the impact it has on you. Take responsibility for how you feel. Prevent people from entering and exiting your emotional state at will.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it!

1. Dealing with Difficult People
2.  Coping with Difficult People, Dr Robert Bramson, 2006 NSBA Convention
3. Dealing with People You  Can't Stand, Dr Rick Brinkman & Dr Rick Kirschner, 2006 NSBA Convention
4. Working with Difficult People, Greg McKenzie, Oregan School Boards Association
5. Winton Goodrich, Vermont School Boards Association, 2006 Federation Trainers Conference


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