Archive for February, 2014

Working with Difficult People

Monday, February 24th, 2014

By Rhonda Scharf, CSP

Who is the most difficult person you work with? Does it feel to you like they spend each evening plotting and planning on how to ruin the next day for you? Does it drain your energy just thinking about this person? You’re not alone. It seems that every one of us has a ‘difficult to deal with’ person in our life. They take a lot of energy just to ignore, and many of us wish they would just go away. If you can identify with this scenario, finish the rest of this sentence: “I would be more effective working with my difficult person if…”

What is you ‘if’?

Now go back and look at what you wrote. Is your answer dependant on them doing something to change? Why do you think they would be willing to change to make your life easier? You’re right, they won’t. So how are we going to be more effective when working with this person? There are three things that you can change.

1-      The System. Perhaps this person is difficult because they are a ‘stick to the rules’ kind of person and you aren’t. It can be very frustrating to you and that this person is so stuck on the system you don’t agree with. If you could just change the system it would make your life a lot easier, don’t you think? Of course, changing the system is an extremely time intensive proposition with no guarantee of any success. There are people, like Erin Brockovich for example, who are able to change the system but most people decide that the effort does not equal the payoff. If this is your situation, you may choose to avoid trying to change the system. I’m not saying that it won’t work – I am saying that it will take a lot of your time and efforts before you see any dividends. It may be easier to take another approach with your difficult person.

2-      The Other Person. You’ve probably heard the old cliché, “If you plan on changing your spouse when you get married, it makes for a very interesting first marriage.” It’s not so easy to change the other person because there is no incentive for them to change. Why should they? What they are doing is currently working just fine, isn’t it? Consider a co-worker that listens to his music at a very loud volume. He likes I that loud, it helps him drown out all the other noise in the office. You despise the type of music he listens to, and it is far too loud for you to concentrate. You’ve asked your co-worker to turn it down every day for the past three months and it has now escalated into an all-out war between the two of you. You are trying to get your difficult person to see that his music is too loud and you cannot concentrate. You are trying to change his perspective on the volume. Why should he turn it down? He likes it just the way it is. Trying to change the other person is often like hitting your head against a brick wall; it just doesn’t work very well. There is no incentive for the other person to take your perspective.

3-      You. Of course, you do have one hundred percent control of what you do. You could try to change your perspective on the situation. Let’s assume that your difficult person is Mary, and Mary loves to complain about the company you work for. She says things like, “they don’t appreciate us”, “I’m doing all the work around here and never get any recognition”, and “this is an old boys club and women will never get in senior management positions”. Basic whining and moaning, all the time, day in and day out. At first, you agreed with some of the things she said, and occasionally got pulled into the negativity yourself. After a while you realized how destructive this was to your attitude and you tried to convince Mary that she was wrong. This, of course, just intensified the situation and the negativity seemed to get worse. You’ve probably moved into the same ‘zone’ that many of us do when confronted with Mary – saying “You’re right, this is a terrible place to work”, hoping that your agreement will make her go away faster.

Did it work? Not really. What Mary wants is attention and acknowledgment. You are giving her both of those things. We need to change what we are doing to get a different result.

“If you keep on doing what you’ve always done,you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got”

You’ve heard that before, and it is completely true. If we want to change the way Mary is acting, we need to change what we are doing, and not give her what she wants. People are difficult because they are getting something out of the deal. They may be getting attention, agreement or even success because of it (think of aggressive drivers). If we want them to do something different (remember the opening question?) then we need to DO something different.

The next time Mary says “I hate this company”, don’t argue with her or agree with her, give her what she doesn’t want (agreement, attention, etc.) and say something like “I LOVE working her!” Don’t worry about if you agree with what you are saying or not, give her something other than what she wants. She wants to complain. She wants to be negative. Don’t give her what she wants.

This will work! Sometimes a lot of work too, especially if you happen to be in a negative mood that day and agree with her. Don’t give into the temptation. Be 100% consistent in this approach. For two weeks this will be very difficult for you. I promise that if you are consistent and not give Mary what she wants, then she will change her behaviour.

The next time you are asked the question “I would be more effective working with my difficult person if…” the right answer lies within you. You can change what is happening with that person. It takes time, effort, persistence and patience.

The result is worth the effort!

Defusing Hostile People – Part 2/2

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Principles of Defusing Hostility

Follow these principles when dealing with an angry person to succeed! (see BOTH parts)

If You Lose Control, You Lose, Period!

Manipulative nasty behaviour is designed to affect you emotionally so that you will become aggressive or defensive. When we lose our cool and defend ourselves or become aggressive we actually end up doing what the other nasty person wants us to do…and we lose because we enter into an ugly game where nobody can win. Self-control is critical, and that has a particular meaning. It means that we control our behaviour. You are entitled to be angry or upset if you choose but you can learn to control your behaviour and the way you express that anger or upset so something good comes from it. Here are some tips:

• When dealing with someone who is attempting to provoke a confrontation, make a conscious attempt to slow down your responses. Do NOT reply immediately since your first gut level response is likely to be an angry or defensive response. Before you respond, ask yourself the questions: “How can I deal with this situation so I create LESS anger and upset on both sides?”. Then respond.

• Pay special attention to the speed and loudness of your speech. When people get excited they tend to talk more quickly and loudly and that causes the other person to escalate also…as the conversation increases in speed there is less and less thought and more chance that people will say things that are destructive. Take your time.

• If you are really triggered, (“pi*sed off”) at what is being said to you, it is a good idea to take a time-out. A time-out is not avoidance–it differs in terms of what one says. For example, if you say: “I’m not talking about this with you” that is an avoidance response and a brush-off and likely to make the situation worse. If you say: “It isn’t a good time for me to talk about this, but I would like to discuss it with you tomorrow. Can we set up a time to meet?, that’s different because it is expressing a commitment to work with the person and does so without characterizing the conversation as negative.

What You Focus On You Get More Of

There is a general principle in life that the things you focus on you get more of. Practically speaking, that means that when someone used confrontation-provoking behaviour you have a choice as to whether you talk about the “junk” or “bait” or whether you talk about something constructive. If you focus on side-issues, personal attacks, negativity, past-centred comments, etc., THAT is what the conversation will be about. If you turn the conversation to something constructive, and do not focus on the confrontation-focusing comments, you don’t allow the attacking person a forum to continue the attacks. (see also Avoid Taking The Bait)

Avoid High Risk, High Gain Behaviour

Some reactions to nasty attacking behaviour have some chance of succeeding, but are called high risk, high gain behaviour. That is, when they work, they work well, but when they fail, they increase the level of emotion, aggression and even violence. Two examples: a verbal blunt smack upside the head, and humour. Both will work sometimes (probably rarely), and when they work they can be very effective in turning a destructive conversation around. The problem is when they don’t work, they increase the escalation of the conflict situation.

We tend to remember the few times when high risk, high gain actions succeed, and make the mistake of assuming that they will work again. This is usually not the case. In conflict situations it is a better bet to stay away from those kinds of actions because more often than not they backfire.

Don’t Take The Bait

We’ve left this principle to last because it is probably the most important. It ties in with several other principles we have talked about.

The term verbal bait refers to the many confrontation provoking behaviours that have a single purpose; to control and manipulate you into responding in emotional ways. When you take the bait, the “fisherperson” basically reels you in, since you have given up control of the conversation. Worse, you have given up control of the conversation to someone who probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

Let the bait go by. In most cases the bait has little or nothing to do with whatever is being discussed but is a conversational control ploy. As such it is best ignored. One tactic is to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, then refocus or move on to the issue you need to deal with. For example:

Vlad The Impaler: I don’t think you are competent to even have an opinion on whether we should change our filing system. Let’s face it you are one of the most unorganized people here…

Fred: “Vlad, I know you are frustrated about this. But let’s move back to the merits of the two systems we are discussing. We have the flingengaus system and the tragingf system, and need to look at the pluses and minuses…

In this example Fred has slipped the personal attacks (basically ignored them) and refocuses back to the file systems.

Some Other Comments

The process of dealing with abusive, aggressive people in the workplace can range from the simple to the very complex. We have outlined a few basic principles but there are a number of verbal techniques that can be used to defuse angry situations, prevent escalation and turn destructive conversations around. For those interested in additional resources we suggest books by Suzette Haden Elgin (Verbal Self-Defense series) or George Thompson (Verbal Judo).

Robert Bacal is a noted author, keynote speaker, and management consultant. His most recent books include If It Wasn’t For The Customers I’d Really Like This Job: Stop Angry, Hostile Customers COLD While Remaining Professional, Stress Free, Efficient and Cool As A Cucumber, and Building Bridges Between Home And School: The Educator’s/Teacher’s Guide To Dealing With Emotional And Upset Parents

The Work911 Supersite contains many more free articles and tips on a number of workplace topics. Access it at . Robert can be contacted via e-mail at

This excerpt is from Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook For The Public Sector.

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