There's No Such Thing As A Vegetarian Tiger

“Appeasers believe that if you keep on throwing steaks to a tiger, the tiger will turn vegetarian.” Heywood Brown

As you may know, I’ve delivered more than 3000 programs in the last 21 years — keynote, half, and full-day programs. I’ve spoken in 48 states and 22 countries. “It’s a wonderful life,” as Jimmy Stewart would say. I love it! I get to work with a lot of wonderful people … and learn a lot about various industries.

During the programs, or during the breaks, I get asked a lot of questions. One of the more frequent questions has to do with difficult people — especially the EXPLODERS and the COMPLAINERS. My attendees want to know how to handle them.


Of course, my question askers are distraught. They don’t know what to do. I tell them they have three options. They can LIVE, LOBBY, or LEAVE. The same goes for you.

In other words, you could simply learn to LIVE with the other person. Accept the fact that he or she is difficult … and leave it at that. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is an option.

You could also LOBBY to change the other person. And there are some techniques you can use to eliminate or neutralize the destructive behavior of the difficult person. It will take some guts, risk, and assertiveness, but these techniques work.

Your third option is to LEAVE. And some of my audience members are thinking of quitting their jobs, moving to a new location, or suspending a long-term relationship — anything to just get away from that difficult person.

You could do that. But it’s an expensive option that will cost you lots of time, money, and energy. And to make matters worse, the difficult person just goes on being difficult.

My recommendation? Learn how to LOBBY for change. LIVE and LEAVE are last resorts.


Standing next to an erupting volcano is life threatening. Standing next to an exploding person is emotionally threatening. Their explosion could destroy your peace of mind, scatter your professional composure, and reduce your productivity.

None of those things have to happen, however. You can take charge of yourself, the situation, and the other person.

Start by recognizing the fact that an exploder reacts in an overly emotional manner. She’s the one who throws a tantrum whenever she feels threatened or thwarted.

Give her time to let it out. And as that’s happening, let your nonverbals show that you’re listening. Nod your head, maintain eye contact, and say “uh-huh.” When the exploder begins to repeat herself, you know the venting is almost over.

Try to repeat exactly what she said. Don’t put it in your own words because she might find something else to get upset about. You want the exploder to feel understood. You can even ask questions to get more information.

Once the Exploder feels understood, you can take her beyond the gripe to the solution. If it’s a customer service situation, for example, you could ask, “How would you like to see this situation resolved?” Then do what you can to find a satisfactory solution.

If the Exploder is one of your subordinates or colleagues, you’ll have to confront her unprofessional behavior. But you need to preface your feedback with your good intentions. Tell her that you want to improve your working relationship. Tell her that you have nothing but good intentions as you discuss the behaviors that are working and not working.

Then be very specific about her problematic, explosive behavior. Give examples of his explosions, but don’t tell the Exploder she shouldn’t get so upset. That only makes things worse. Instead point out the adverse effects of her behavior. Tell her, “What you’re doing is hurting the company’s image as well as your coworkers. It’s even hurting you and your future. I know you don’t want that.”

You have a right to ask your coworkers for certain behaviors. After all, that’s a part of what they are paid to do. So ask for what you want. Say, “A better way to handle that situation would be … and … Are you willing to do that?”

Most people run from the Exploders. Others try to push back. It doesn’t work. It’s hard to outrun the volcanic lava when it’s flowing in your direction, and it’s almost impossible to push the lava back into the volcano. You’re much better off if you channel the explosion — just like I outlined above.


Complainers present somewhat of a different challenge. It goes something like this.

You start out on a job. You’re paid to do it, and you’re excited about doing it. After all, you’re a professional. All is well and good — until you find out there’s a bunch of Complainers at work. They’re constantly, whining, griping, nagging, and picking.

At first, it’s no big deal. You decide to just ignore them. But they don’t stop. Their complaining begins to irritate you; they bring you down, and eventually you wonder how much longer you can take it before you look for another job.

Don’t do it! Don’t let the Complainers determine your destiny. You can take charge, take action, and turn the Complainer towards more productive behavior.

If you think of Complainers as a pain in the neck, if you approach them as the enemy, you’ll arouse the Complainer’s natural defenses. He’ll get more firmly entrenched in his negative behavior.

By contrast, if you approach the negative person with a warm and friendly demeanor, the negative person doesn’t feel the need to fight back.

Lincoln knew this. A woman asked Lincoln why he continued to speak kindly about his enemies instead of destroying them. He said, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Constant Complainers often go on and on because they feel no one is listening. If you really listen, you can surprise, and possibly quiet, the Complainer.

While the Complainer is talking, refrain from judgment. Don’t argue with the Complainer. Don’t argue about what’s right or wrong or who’s right or wrong. If you have to say something, just rephrase what you heard to see if you really understood it. “So the problem is that some people get more privileges than others.”

You can show interest in what the Complainer has to say by asking for more information. Ask such things as, “How did this happen? … What else can you tell me? … How do you feel about the situation?” And ask him what HE has done to FIX the situation.

Even if you believe the gripe is valid, be careful about saying so out loud. The Complainer will be glad to have the company of another Complainer. He’ll be encouraged to complain even more if you reinforce him by saying he’s right.

On the other hand, beware of silence. The Complainer might interpret your silence as passive agreement. If you disagree, say so — warmly, firmly, professionally. You want the Complainer to see you as a fair-minded colleague. You don’t want him to mistakenly claim you as an ally because of your active or passive agreement.

Be honest. Tell him in clear, easy-to-understand language. Say, “I can make sure you are recognized for your efforts, but I can’t pay you more money.”

Move toward a solution, if there is one. Ask the Complainer what he wants done. “How do you suggest we solve this problem? Notice the emphasis on “we.” You want the Complainer to know that he has some responsibility for changing things, not just you.

You might even try a “you” question. Ask him how he would improve things. What could he do to make the situation better? If he doesn’t know, give him some time. Suggest that he do some research, draft a report, and go over it with you.

In the end, get a clear agreement. You and the Complainer have to know exactly who is going to do what by when. You each make a commitment to do your part, and you agree to check back with each other once in a while. You check back to celebrate the progress that’s been made and modify the agreement as needed.

It’s a process, but it’s a process that works. You turn Complainers into problem solvers. And yes, some Complainers will be a lot more difficult than others. Some will take a lot longer to turn around. All you have to do is decide that the constant Complainer may give himself a headache, but he’s not going to give you one.

Action:  Which type of person is the most difficult for you to cope with — the Exploders or the Complainers. Take a moment to think about your typical response to these people, and in particular, focus on one or two of your responses that DO NOT seem to work. Decide to respond differently the next time you’re faced with the other person’s difficult behavior. Use one or more of the techniques listed above …