Dealing with difficult people: A guide

February 20th, 2017

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) shakes hands with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at the Gleneagles Hotel for the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland July 7, 2005. Aid, debt relief and climate change will top the agenda when leaders of the G8 - the Group of Seven industrialised nations plus Russia - meet for three days in Gleneagles. UNICS REUTERS/Jim Young CRB - RTRGQCN

Difficult people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, strife, and worst of all stress.

Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus—an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small “arms” that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. Stress is a formidable threat to your success—when stress gets out of control, your brain and your performance suffer.

Most sources of stress at work are easy to identify. If your non-profit is working to land a grant that your organization needs to function, you’re bound to feel stress and likely know how to manage it. It’s the unexpected sources of stress that take you by surprise and harm you the most.

Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with difficult people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, difficult people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to neutralize difficult people. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ to keep difficult people at bay.

While I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that smart people employ when dealing with difficult people, what follows are some of the best. To deal with difficult people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can and eliminate what you can’t. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of far more than you realize.

They set limits. Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral.

You can avoid this only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.

They rise above. Difficult people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. Make no mistake about it; their behavior truly goes against reason. So why do you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked into the mix? The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions like they’re a science project (or you’re their shrink, if you prefer the analogy). You don’t need to respond to the emotional chaos—only the facts.

They stay aware of their emotions. Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.

Think of it this way—if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he’s John F. Kennedy, you’re unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a coworker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it’s best to just smile and nod. If you’re going to have to straighten them out, it’s better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it.

They establish boundaries. This is the area where most people tend to sell themselves short. They feel like because they work or live with someone, they have no way to control the chaos. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you’ve found your way to Rise Above a person, you’ll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you don’t. For example, even if you work with someone closely on a project team, that doesn’t mean that you need to have the same level of one-on-one interaction with them that you have with other team members.

You can establish a boundary, but you’ll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you are bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where you’ll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the chaos. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they will.

They don’t die in the fight. Smart people know how important it is to live to fight another day, especially when your foe is a toxic individual. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.

They don’t focus on problems—only solutions. Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.

When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.

They don’t forget. Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean that they forget. Forgiveness requires letting go of what’s happened so that you can move on. It doesn’t mean you’ll give a wrongdoer another chance. Smart people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others’ mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm.

They squash negative self-talk. Sometimes you absorb the negativity of other people. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about how someone is treating you, but your self-talk (the thoughts you have about your feelings) can either intensify the negativity or help you move past it. Negative self-talk is unrealistic, unnecessary, and self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of. You should avoid negative self-talk at all costs.

They get some sleep. I’ve beaten this one to death over the years and can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. A good night’s sleep makes you more positive, creative, and proactive in your approach to toxic people, giving you the perspective you need to deal effectively with them.

They use their support system. It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To deal with toxic people, you need to recognize the weaknesses in your approach to them. This means tapping into your support system to gain perspective on a challenging person. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as explaining the situation can lead to a new perspective. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.

Bringing It All Together

Before you get this system to work brilliantly, you’re going to have to pass some tests. Most of the time, you will find yourself tested by touchy interactions with problem people. Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors, even when you fail. Implementing these healthy, stress-relieving techniques for dealing with difficult people will train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.

Article by,

Travis Bradberry, President, TalentSmart

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6 Tips For Dealing With Difficult (Even Impossible) People

February 10th, 2017

1. I Am Really Ticked Off. Do I Have To Be Forgiving?

The last two years I’ve had several difficult personal and professional problems, which left me feeling mad, victimized and obsessed with a few people’s General Awfulness.

This is what Hell feels like: to be obsessed with a generally awful person who isn’t even aware of the turmoil he or she is causing. Heaven is to have forgiven — or to have forgiven-ish, the best you can, for now. When your heart is even slightly softer toward that person, and you are less clenched and aggrieved, you’ve been touched by grace.

Grace is spiritual WD-40. It eases our way out of grippy, self-righteous stuckness. The question is, how do we avail ourselves of it?

I’ve learned that if you want to have loving feelings, do loving things. We think we’ll eventually figure something out, and get over the grudge, and that this will constitute forgiveness. But it’s the opposite: We take an action and the insight follows. Any friendly action will do; intention is everything. We show up somewhere knowing the person who aggrieved us will be there, and we go up and say hi. If the person is a relative, we ask for help with the dishes. (This is very subversive.)

Any warm action will yield the insight — life is short, and Earth is Forgiveness School.

All of my resentments have been healed. That doesn’t mean I want to have lunch with those people, but my heart has softened, which is a miracle. One person still judges me, and bears false witness against me, but thankfully, that is not my business or my problem, because I have chosen freedom. Nothing is more wonderful.

Anne Lamott is the author of Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair.

2. What’s A Respectful Way To Defend My Beliefs?

When I became a political commentator, I looked for a refresher course in persuasion. Unfortunately, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion, by Jay Heinrichs, had not yet been published. (I highly recommend it.) I did stumble across the Monty Python “Argument” sketch (“This isn’t an argument.” “Yes it is.” “No it isn’t.” “Yes it is.”), which sounds a lot like our current political discourse.

I approach every argument as if I’m trying to get out of a speeding ticket: with humor and respect. I listen. And when things get tense, I pretend I’m in a restaurant, debating what to order. Public policy isn’t coleslaw versus French fries, but persuasion starts with respecting that there are many valid choices. Another trick? Slow down. Powerful speech can come in at around 120 words per minute—angry or nervous speech can be about twice that. When all else fails, make a joke. There’s no better tool for reaching across the “I’ll.” Yes, I just said that. A little pun, even a bad one, goes a long way.

Donna Brazile is a syndicated columnist, political strategist, and contributor to CNN and ABC News.

3. What’s Code For “Mind Your Own Business?”

Dorothea Johnson is the founder of The Protocol School of Washington, and actress Liv Tyler is her granddaughter. They are the authors of Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top.

Liv: Say, “Thank you for trying to help, but I’m not comfortable talking about that right now.” Often you can shut someone down by mentioning your feelings.

Dorothea: Offering thanks is diplomatic. Kill ‘em with kindness!

Liv: Even if something really offends you, ask yourself whether it contains some truth worth exploring later.

Dorothea: And don’t get argumentative about unsolicited advice. Take the high road. The low road is so crowded.

4. How Can Friends Stay Friendly?

Pals Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have coauthored eight books; the most recent is The First Affair.

Emma: Going back to grade school, girls find comfort in friends who have the same tastes they do. Any difference can provoke anxiety. Some of our greatest tension has been about whether a character’s curtains should be cream or ecru!

Nicola: We’re with Ben Affleck: Like a marriage, friendship takes work — the same honest communication and frequent check-ins you need with a partner. Celebrate your conflicting opinions. They only make the relationship stronger.

5. Can I Maintain Sanity In My Nutty Office?

Even in toxic environment we can achieve a sense of calm, through meditation. No one has to know what you’re up to. Spend five minutes sitting at your desk, with your back straight but relaxed; try not to look directly at your computer. Breathe at your normal pace and frequency, then sharpen your focus by noticing the sensations in your nostrils, chest, abdomen. You’ll feel more balanced with each breath. And the next time a coworker frustrates you, be grateful that her nastiness comes your way only in two-minute bursts; she has to live inside that energy all the time.

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg is the author of Real Happiness at Work.

6. Why Should I Hang Out with People Who Think Differently Than I Do?

Cultivating contacts outside your social circle brings a little ordered chaos into your life. Most of us find the idea of chaos stressful, but history suggests that the disorder following upheaval often brings unexpected benefits: The Plague, for example, helped usher in the Renaissance. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for catastrophe to strike; just form relationships with all kinds of individuals. I call them “unusual suspects,” because they’ll naturally push your thinking in new directions. Ask yourself which groups have made you a bit uncomfortable in the past, and try reaching out to them. (I’m from Israel, and one of my unusual suspects runs a church.) Make a point of getting together with your new connections with no agenda. Even if you just chat, you’ve created an opportunity for ideas to be born.

Article by, Ori Brafman

Ori Brafman is the coauthor of The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success.

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Human Interaction: The Skill Nobody Ever Teaches You

February 3rd, 2017

What’s more important: knowledge, work habits or the way we interact with others?

Recently, one of my clients was creating a project team. Several people volunteered, yet when they found out that Ms. So and So was going to be part of it, they quickly retracted their offers. The project hadn’t even started, yet they were already jumping ship at the mere thought of having to work with Ms. So and So.

Here’s the weird part: The person nobody wanted to work with was highly regarded for her knowledge of the subject, and she was generally known as a hard worker. What’s more, most of the team believed she probably wanted the best for the organization as a whole.

She was smart, she wanted to help and she had a good work ethic. So why didn’t anyone want to work with her?

Because her personality was so negative that she sucked the life out of people. With everyone already overworked to the max, they quickly decided that they weren’t willing to muster up the extra emotional energy needed to deal with her.

What’s sad is that I doubt she has any idea how she’s coming across. She probably thought all her criticisms and negative commentary were actually helpful.

Negative people rarely recognize just how challenging they make it for everyone else. However, seasoned managers quickly learn that the extra effort you have to expend managing a complainer just isn’t worth it.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Fortune 500 or the PTA. A negative attitude will overshadow a high IQ, a strong desire to serve and even a great work ethic.

Ironic, isn’t it? We place so much emphasis on knowledge and work habits, yet the thing that often derails people is their interpersonal skills.

What’s even more ironic is that unless you’re a speech, drama or broadcast major, you can go all the way through college without ever getting any meaningful feedback on how you’re being perceived by others.

The challenge with over-the-top negativity is two-fold. First, the offender is usually so interpersonally unskilled he or she doesn’t recognize the problem. Numerous studies reveal that competent people tend to rate themselves much more harshly than incompetent people because a person’s incompetence literally blinds them to their own incompetence. (You’re entitled to a self-satisfied chortle here.)

But the second challenge is that no one calls them on it because we often assume that they’re doing it on purpose and that they like being a project killer.

So the smart, on-time-with-their-work-yet-emotionally-clueless person continues to over-complain (or needle people about inconsequential issues, or whine, or make negative assumptions, etc.), oblivious to the fact that the rest of the team is deflating by the moment.

The solution is simple: Get some training. We don’t expect people to learn chemistry without a teacher; why should we expect people to instinctively know how to create positive interactions?

Don’t get me wrong: You don’t have to ooze charisma or become a Pollyanna. People are just fine working with shy, quiet people, and nobody expects a non-stop cheerleader.

But if every comment you make is negative or critical, you’re probably detracting from the group more than you’re adding to it. Your knowledge may be valuable, but if you consistently serve it up with a scowl, nobody is going to want to hear it.

Bottom line: Learning how to evoke positive feelings in others isn’t cutesy; it’s critical.

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