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spike bullet March, 1999 - Dealing with Difficult People

What Makes People "Difficult"?
Symptom: The "Know it All"
Symptom: "Do It My Way or Else!"
Tips for Dealing with Others
Tips for Supervisors
Tips for Overcoming Negative Aspects in Yourself
Resources (links, books, articles, humor)

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Dealing with Difficult People

What makes people "difficult"?

Usually, the difficult person is someone who is working from the negative side of their personality, rather than a conscious desire to be difficult. The person is often unaware of themselves and how they affect others.  They also don't realize how harmful their actions are to their own career success. 

In the business world, we are constantly faced with trying to work with others who may challenge our ability to get things done.

There is great value to be gained when we take the time to try to understand another’s viewpoint. By changing our attitude toward them and changing our viewpoint about what makes them "wrong" we can find a wealth of knowledge to improve our own ability to work with people.

This article addresses a couple personality aspects that are common in the workplace. In future articles, we will highlight others.

We draw on our Personality Game to highlight these personality traits.

Symptom: They know it all, so don’t dare to question them

This is a well-recognized trait, especially prevalent in technical people.  Many other professions share the trait. We see it often in computer programmers, software developers, engineers, doctors and attorneys.

Example: As a business user of computers, you may ask what you think is a simple question and get a response that is something like "how DARE you question me or my judgment!"

Or, you make a suggestion and get a ton of excuses why that is not true, why it shouldn’t be done that way, why the person is an expert in their field, blah, blah, blah . . .

Eventually, you give up trying to work with them.

This symptom is a manifestation of Arrogance. Arrogance is a defense against vulnerability and insecurity, often learned in childhood when parents constantly criticize a child for not being good enough. The person is so afraid of being seen as unworthy or incompetent, that they immediately throw up a defensive shield against any possible attack. This defense protects them for a while, but everyone else sees that it is false.

In the end, they lose credibility and respect — the thing they fear most.

The results of arrogance and defensiveness:

  1. People refuse to deal with them
  2. People don’t believe what they say
  3. People think they really don’t know their job
  4. They may be fired eventually because of their attitude.

Symptom: Do it my way, or else!!

This is another well recognized trait that seems prevalent in people in management positions or positions of corporate power. No matter what anyone says or does, this person will force their ideas on everyone else. There can be no open discussion or involvement. Things MUST be done this person’s way or else.

Example: In a meeting, if someone offers a suggestion, this person will strongly make it clear that their suggestions are not wanted. If you try to make a point, this person will crush any attempts to deal rationally with the situation.

Eventually, everyone gives up trying to work with them.

This symptom is a negative aspect of Dominance: Dictatorship. This symptom is at it's worst when the person’s primary role is Warrior or King. If they happen to also have Power mode combined with Dominance, people will FEEL as if someone punched them in the stomach when the person lets loose with their verbal abuse.

The positive side of Dominance is Leadership. When this person is relaxed and working from the positive side of their personality, they can be quite effective and charming. As with Arrogance, stress or insecurity may bring on the attack. It may seem to come without warning or you may be able to see the stress building up.

In the end, the person loses their ability to control events — the thing they fear most.

Many people operating from this negative position are fired publicly, causing them great humiliation and complete loss of control over events. Needless to say, those who have been subjected to their tyranny are joyous in celebrating their defeat.

The results of domineering people:

  1. People will avoid them or refuse to deal with them
  2. People will not tell them the truth or provide them with vital information that might help them make better decisions
  3. People learn to ignore or discount their opinions or decisions
  4. People will avoid implementing their ideas and subvert their authority (consciously or unconsciously)
  5. They may be fired because of their bad decisions and poor leadership abilities.

Tips for dealing with negative aspects in others:

  1. When you see someone go into attack mode or excess defensiveness, recognize that it is useless to argue with them.
  2. Realize that the person is feeling very insecure at that time.
  3. Don’t continue to push them because they will only get worse.
  4. If the symptoms only seem to occur when the person is under stress, wait until another time to pursue the discussion.
  5. If they are always overly defensive or always attacking others, you may need to find another person to work with who does not have the same problem.
  6. Keep your own sense of self-confidence and don't allow yourself to be verbally abused. 
  7. If the difficult person is your boss, reconsider whether it's time to find a job elsewhere.

Tips for supervising people with negative aspects:

  1. Help the person see how much their negative behavior is damaging their career potential. 
  2. Set goals for them to learn to work better with others and monitor their behavior until it improves. 
  3. If it does not improve within a reasonable time, send them packing.

Tips for overcoming negative aspects in yourself:

  1. Learn to recognize when your defensive mechanisms come up.  Realize that you are probably not really being attacked.
  2. When you catch yourself feeling defensive, don’t react so quickly.
  3. Learn how to listen when someone asks a question or makes a suggestion.
  4. Ask people to re-state their question/comment/suggestion.
  5. Try to understand what others are saying by repeating back what you think you heard.
  6. You may want to ask for more time to respond, then get back to them. This will give you time to work with the question/comment/suggestion without the pressure of being on the spot. 
  7. DO  consider that other people have good ideas that are just as valid as yours. 
  8. Take courses or workshops in listening skills and team-building.
  9. Find someone who can help you work on this negative aspect of yourself — a good friend, coworker, teacher or counselor.
  10. If it is someone that you interact with regularly, ask them to let you know when you are being a jerk and call your attention to what you are doing.  That will help you learn to see what situations and events trigger your insecurity.
  11. Recognize that changing learned patterns of insecurity and defensiveness may take years of work.
  12. Don't give up on yourself. 
  13. Learn to understand your own personality and your unique strengths and weaknesses.
  14. The effort to improve your ability to get along with others will be rewarded as you find more career opportunities open up for you.

book graphic Books

  • Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations.  Don Gabor,   ISBN 0-671-79505-8 .  Published by Fireside (a division of Simon & Schuster), 1994.
  • The Gentle Art of Verbal Self­Defense. Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.  (Dr. Elgin has a series of books on this subject)  John Wiley & Sons; (March 1997) ISBN: 0471157058
  • Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self­Defense. Suzette Haden"Secrets of Dealing with Difficult People" Elgin, Ph.D. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158­0012. 1993.  Suzette Elgin has written several books on communication. ISBN: 0471580163
  • Secrets of Dealing with Difficult People - electronic book by Dr. Mark Lauderdale.  http://www.shrinkinabox.com/difficult-people/  

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Page updated: November 29, 2010      

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