How to Manage Difficult People: Handling the Difficult without Difficulty
By Dana Borowka – excerpt from Cracking the Personality Code
As a manager, you must deal with a wide range of personalities. Thanks to proper hiring assessments, most of your direct reports should be productive and reasonable workers. But what about those who slip through the process, employees you inherit, or co-workers who are extremely difficult to work with or even be around? You know the types. These are the folks focused on their own agenda and needs, who cause conflicts wherever they go, and command a great deal of a manager’s time and attention. The difficult ones don’t get diseases like ulcers and heart attacks. They seem to induce them in others!
During our workshops on managing difficult people, we always express a debt of gratitude to a pair of doctors named Rick: Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner, authors of two great reads, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand and their latest, Dealing with Difficult People. They became friends while med-students, but their friendship blossomed when a surgeon from an area hospital became their mentor. With his guidance and encouragement, they studied health from an attitudinal point of view. In 1982, a mental-health organization asked the two Ricks to create a program on how to deal with difficult people. That marked the official beginning of a research project that has continued for more than twenty-five years.
Another author who is an important voice on this subject is psychologist Jay Carter, whose book Nasty People calls upon decades of practice and observation to offer proven strategies for avoiding toxic relationships (www.jaycarter.net). With psychology that makes sense, Dr. Carter offers tremendous insights on how to protect your sanity and confront emotional bullies. The process begins by identifying the “invalidators” in your work life. (The following excerpts are used with permission of the author and the McGraw-Hill Companies, publishers of Nasty People by Dr. Jay Carter, copyright 2003—second edition.)
Taking on Invalidation
In the words of Leo Buscaglia, “Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.” Have you been hurt, betrayed, or degraded by a difficult employee, co-worker, or boss? Whoever that person is, according to Dr. Carter, he or she is an invalidator who feeds upon your self-esteem, mental anguish, and unhappiness. But you can stop this cycle of abuse and put an end to sneak attacks, without stooping to their level. “Invalidation is a general term for a person injuring or trying to injure another,” says Dr. Carter. “An invalidation can range anywhere from a shot in the back to a ‘tsk, tsk.’ A rolling of the eyeballs can be an invalidation and so can a punch in the nose. It is usually the sneaky verbal or non-verbal invalidations that cause the most damage. A punch in the nose is obvious, and it heals. However, an attack on self esteem … at the right moment … and in the right way … can last a lifetime.”
The major reason invalidation occurs so often in the workplace is that it seems to work. The sneaky invalidation works because a punch in the nose is obvious and will get the troublemaker terminated (if not sued), while the mental attack may go unnoticed and unpunished, while it injures its victim.
According to Dr. Carter, invalidation is propagated in our society by about 20 percent of the population. “About 1 percent intentionally spread this misery, while the other 19 percent do it unconsciously. Invalidation can be found to greater and lesser degrees in various societies. Happier individuals evolve from societies in which invalidation is at a minimum. Unfortunately, in the US, it seems to be part of the American way.”
For a manager it may be problematic to identify invalidation, as the methods used to invalidate are often very subtle. When people invalidate, it is because they feel inferior to others. To compensate, they attack and undermine the self-esteem of others. Invalidating behavior ranges from very obvious to covert. Where does invalidation come from? People express invalidating behavior either consciously or subconsciously. Most people slip into this behavior subconsciously by reacting to subtle triggers in the environment and have learned this from others, like a family member. This behavior is passed from one person to another through being invalidated.
Common Methods of Invalidation
Forewarned is forearmed, as the old adage goes. Be on the watch for these low blows and cheap shots.
Building You Up, Cutting You Down
When an individual showers you with compliments, then tears you apart.
Cutting You Off
When someone cuts off communication in the middle. He or she may ask you a question, then cuts you off or walks off before you are finished answering.
A psychological mechanism, where the individual takes his/her own feelings and puts the responsibility for them onto someone else, as if these feelings originated within the other person.
When a person uses generalizations that are simply exaggerations of small truths. The more truth there is in the generalization, the more it can be exaggerated. “Always” and “never” are commonly used in generalizations.
This method uses opposite messages to confuse and put down the other person.
The Double Bind
When you are set up in a situation where you are “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
How to Handle Invalidation
When you recognize the tactics of the difficult people, then you can have a counter strategy. Here are a few tips and techniques to counter their assaults.
“Just the Facts”
Sticking to and firmly repeating the facts is a powerful way to destroy invalidation.
“What Did You Say?”
Asking the person to repeat the invalidation will, at times, defuse it, especially if it was a sneak attack.
Tell It Like It Is
Most invalidations are insinuations, voice inflections, and double messages that can be handled with the simple truth. Tell the truth by looking at your feelings. “I feel angry when you speak to me in that manner.”
Don’t Let It Slide
Invalidation only gets worse as time goes on. It’s important to talk about it. Exploring the intent is helpful to reduce invalidation, by asking, “When you say that, what are you really trying to say?”
Saying no, putting down limits, and describing what you can do is helpful when dealing with someone who is using pressure, demands, or manipulation to get what they want.
Five Other Types of Difficult Behavior
Invalidators are not the only challenge for a manager. At best, the following types of difficult behavior make work life tense, stressful and unpleasant. At worst, they can keep a manager from achieving important goals. We all know what happens to managers who don’t achieve their goals. But through knowledge and practice, you can obtain the power to bring out the best behavior in direct reports and co-workers who are at their worst.
According to Drs. Brinkman and Kirschner, there are many different types of difficult behavior at work, and behavior can change from one type to another as conditions change. You have the advantage when you are pre-pared with a variety of responses when dealing with any particular difficult behavior. Here are five types of difficult behavior and suggestions on how to deal with them. (The following excerpts are used with permission of the authors and the McGraw-Hill Companies, publishers of Dealing With Difficult People: 24 Lessons for Bringing Out the Best in Everyone by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner, copyright 2003—first edition.)
The Authority: “I know it all”
A person behaving this way has a low tolerance for correction or contradiction, and easily blames others when things go wrong. According to Brinkman and Kirschner, here is your goal: To open their mind to new ideas and information.
How to handle them:
- Be prepared and know the flaws and shortcomings of your ideas. Be able to explain them in a brief, precise, and clear manner.
- Use active listening to help the person know you are listening to them, and be sure to show interest and respect.
- Acknowledge and address the problems and doubts, by paraphrasing the concern back with information to address it.
- Present your ideas indirectly by using softening words (like, “perhaps,” “what do you suppose”) to sound hypothetical rather than challenging. Use plural pronouns like “we” or “us” to convey that you are both on the same team. Ask questions to help the individual to accept new information, like, “I was wondering, what do you sup-pose would happen if we were to try [new information] in certain areas?”
- Use them as resources by letting them know that you recognize them as an expert and are willing to learn from them. They will spend more time teaching you than obstructing you.
The Fake: “Look at me!”
Faking involves acting or pretending that we’re something we’re not for approval, attention and/or importance. In the business world, this behavior can be especially destructive when people act as experts and give out misinformation and opinions as facts.
People behaving this way combine a small amount of information with exaggeration and generalizations to get attention. When confronted, these individuals can get very aggressive to maintain their facade. This is driven by a strong people focus since people are the source of the attention and appreciation they crave.
Here are some recommendations on how to handle them:
- Give them a little attention by: Repeating back their comments with enthusiasm; Acknowledging their positive intent rather than wasting time debating their content. Example: “Thanks for contributing to this discussion.” You don’t have to agree with their remarks to provide some attention or positive projection.
- Ask some revealing questions to clarify for specifics. Fakes usually talk in generalizations, so ask questions to get specifics. For example, when they use “always,” ask “when specifically?” Ask your questions with curiosity and respect, and not to embarrass the individual.
- Tell it like it is and redirect the conversation back to reality and facts. Speak about the situation or problem from your point of view and use “I” statements to keep your remarks as non-threatening as possible.
- Give them a break to reduce the chance of them becoming defensive. When providing evidence, you can say, “But maybe you haven’t heard of this yet…” You can also act as if their misinformation has reminded you of your subject and express appreciation for their efforts.
- Notice when the individual is doing something right and give credit where credit is due.
The No Person: “No! No! No!!!”
The “no person” constantly says no to everything and strives to defeat ideas and fights for despair and hopelessness. (This person is the close cousin of the “no, but” person.)
Kirschner and Brinkman advise that you handle them like this:
- Go with the flow. Allow the individual to be as negative as they want to be. Don’t try to convince them that things are not so bad. That will only motivate them to convince you that things are even worse.
- Use them as a detector for potential problems and discovering fatal flaws in a project or situation.
- Give them time. “No people” tend to operate in a different time reality than other people. The more you push them to make a decision, the more they will dig in their heels.
- Be realistic by acknowledging the flaws or problems, and invite them to help you in finding a solution.
- Acknowledge their positive intent by acting as if the negative feedback is meant to be helpful. Appreciate them for having high standards, being willing to speak up, and being concerned about details. When a successful project is completed, remember to include them in the celebration.
The Whiner: “Oh, woe is me!”
This person feels helpless and overwhelmed by an unfair world. They set their standard at perfection and nothing measures up to it. They constantly complain about everything and search out an audience to listen to their tale of woe.
Kirschner and Brinkman offer these suggestions for dealing with whiners:
- Do’s and Don’ts:
• Don’t agree with them. That just encourages them to continue complaining.
• Don’t disagree with them, as they’ll feel the need to repeat their woes.
• Don’t try to solve their problems—you can’t.
• Do have patience with their unrealistic standards and endless negativity.
• Do have compassion for them as their lives seem to be beyond their control.
• Do have commitment to the process of getting them to focus on solutions.
2. Listen for and write down the main points in their complaints. This helps you to clarify the situation to prepare for the last step of this process.
3. Interrupt and be specific by asking clarification questions.
4. Whiners often complain in cascading generalizations and don’t stand still with any one problem long enough to even start problem solving. It’s important to stop them and get specific.
5. Shift the focus to solutions. As you get specific about each complaint, ask them, “What do you want?” They may not know, in which case tell them to make something up. Or if they do know, what is it?
6. Others may be unrealistic in their solutions, so help them be more practical by telling them like it is and saying, “Based on these facts, what do you want?”
7. Involve them in the problem solving process by having them track and document the problem in writing, and request solutions and recommendations for the problem. This helps them to see that problems can be solved.
8. If these steps have not created even a minor change with the individual, then you must politely but firmly draw the line. To draw the line:
• Each time the person begins to complain, you must take charge of the situation and bring it assertively to a close, by standing up and walking to the door.
• Say calmly, “Since your complaints seem to have no solutions, talking about them isn’t going to accomplish anything. If you happen to think of any solutions, please let me know.”
• Do not allow them to draw you back into their cycle of complaining. Simply repeat the same statement over and over.
The Yes Person: “I just can’t say no!”
This individual constantly tries to please others and avoid confrontation by saying yes to everyone. They have trouble thinking things through and consistently overextend themselves. They react to the latest requests and demands, fail to follow through, and end up feeling resentful towards others.
Kirschner and Brinkman offer these suggestions on how to handle them:
1. Make it safe to discuss anger and fear in a calm manner. The key to maintaining safety is using active listening and verbal reassurance.
2. Talk honestly without getting defensive. Ask them questions to clarify and express your appreciation for their honesty, like, “Please help me to understand what happened last week. What stopped you from having the information on time? Did you ask anyone for help?”
3. Help them learn to plan. This is an opportunity to change and learn how to keep commitments.
• Start with stating the consequence of breaking one’s promises. Example: “One of the most important parts of being a team is knowing that my team can count on me and I can count on my team. Just think how it would affect our ability to be a team and work together if we couldn’t keep our commitments to each other.”
• Help them to look at different options and make changes. Ask questions like, “What got in the way and what could have been done differently? How else could the situation have been handled?” Example: “Instead of saying yes right away when someone asks you to do something, perhaps you can train yourself to say, ‘Let me look at my schedule and get back to you.’”
• Help the individual focus on specific action steps to accomplish the task.
4. Ensure commitment by:
• Seeking a deeper level of commitment by asking for their “word of honor.”
• Asking them to summarize their commitment by having them tell you what they will do. Example: “I want to make sure that you and I both understand how this will be done. Could you describe to me what you will do and when?”
• Having them write it down, which will make the information easier to remember.
• Being very clear about the deadlines and describing negative consequences in terms of how a broken commitment will affect others. Example: “If this doesn’t get completed, how do you think that is going to impact those who are depending on you?”
• Keeping in touch to help the person overcome any obstacles and ensure follow through.
5. Strengthen the relationship by acknowledging when the individual is honest about their doubts and concerns; dealing with broken promises with great care; and making an event out of every completed commitment.
How to deal with broken promises:
• Tell them what they did by specifically describing the facts of the situation, but not your opinion of the situation. Example: “You made a commitment to finish this project.”
• Explain how others were affected in a factual manner. Tell them how you feel about it. Don’t exaggerate, but be honest. Example: “Quite honestly, I’m disappointed and frustrated over this.”
• Project positive intent, like, “I know you care about doing great work and you are capable of doing what you say.”
• Tell them, “That’s not like you,” even if it is. People will strive to fulfill positive projections.
• Ask them what they learned from the experience and how they would handle it differently. This helps to change negative situations into learning experiences.
You Are in Control of You
Managers are influential, but the only person you can control is you. So keep a positive attitude about dealing with negative people. As Betty Sachelli put it, “Two thoughts cannot occupy the mind at the same time, so the choice is ours as to whether our thoughts will be constructive or destructive.”
Difficult employees are a fact of life. They blame, intimidate, whine, run away, or explode without notice. The more you try to work with them, the more they seem to work to disrupt your plans. But there’s no reason to let difficult employees get in the way of your performance in the workplace. With the help of these effective approaches to understanding and circumventing disruptive and annoying behavior, you can get past the roadblocks posed by difficult people in the workplace.
Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2015 This information contained in this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional counseling.
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