What NOT To Do When Dealing With Difficult People

Nothing ever big came from being small.

Instead of being shrugged off or dismissed as normal office politics, workplace meanness is starting to get some serious attention. In fact, in a July 1998 worldwide study, the International Labor Organization said that “psychological harassment” on the job was a growing problem in the USA. It undermines productivity and morale.

Now you may think that “psychological harassment” consists of nothing more than some minor incivilities, done more out of ignorance than rudeness. Not so. Gary Namie at The Work Doctor says, “The cruelty is incredible” in many work places. And it’s much more subtle than outright bullying, jumping up, and screaming.

It may come in the form of the saboteur who undermines his/her coworker’s success, engages in the silent treatment, or spreads disparaging rumors. It may be as subtle as a few coworkers going out to lunch and “forgetting” to invite certain individuals.

Whatever the case, you’ve probably been the recipient of abuse or maltreatment at some point. Or you will be.

The more important issue is how you respond to it. You can respond in a healthy or unhealthy way. You can respond in a way that has a chance of working, or you can respond in a way that probably won’t. Let’s focus on what DOESN’T work.

=> 1. Internalization

When the other person behaves in a way that is unacceptable, you may be very good at ignoring your feelings. You may have a bunch of anger or frustration rumbling around inside of you, but you may not even be aware of those feelings.

The trouble is, you may be able to fool your mind but not your body. As you internalize more and more negative feelings, you’re bound to get a physiological reaction … such as a headache, stomach ache, or something else. In fact, when you notice those kinds of symptoms, take a deeper look at yourself to see if you’re upset or angry.

=> 2. Passivity

Some of you may take a second approach when you’re the victim of someone’s rudeness. You become passive. You’re aware of your negative feelings, but you choose to withhold them. You decide not to say anything … at least directly.

I’ve noticed that passivity comes out in three ways: silence, hints, and questions. Of course, you’ve heard that “silence is golden,” but in this context, it’s yellow, cowardly yellow. The passive person is afraid of being open and honest, and so he hides behind a curtain of silence.

Others drop hints. For example, when the hinter thinks someone else is not doing his/her fair share of the work, the hinter might sigh a bit and talk about all the work that has to be done. The hinter hopes the other person will “volunteer” to help.

Still others will use questions to let their feelings leak out. For example, a parent who’s upset with the late arrival of his teenager may ask, “Where were you? And what were you doing?” When he really should have talked about his feelings of anger and fear.

=> 3. Aggression

Some people respond to workplace nastiness with some aggression of their own. They attack their attacker. They use blame, criticism, or stereotypes to get back at the other person. And in each case, they add a little extra volume and drama to their attack.

In a marriage relationship, blamers use such comments as, “If it weren’t for you … and … You made me do it.” Criticizers find some defect in their spouse and point it out with great precision and accuracy, saying something like, “You’re just plain incompetent when it comes to fixing things.” And sometimes, to cut a little bit deeper, the criticizer might add a broad-brushed generalization to his/her comment, such as, “It’s impossible to discuss anything with you because you never listen.”

Finally stereotyping puts the other person in an unfavorable light by comparing him/her to someone else. “You’re just like your brother Billy, and he never amounted to anything.”

It should be obvious that none of these first three approaches work, and neither does the fourth one.

=> 4. Indirect Aggression

Finally, there are those who are victims of abuse, who have upset feelings, but they find subtle, sneaky ways to express their anger. They’re indirect. They use sarcasm, caustic questions, and pouting. Perhaps you know someone who uses these behaviors on you.

Of course, sarcasm is widely popular these days. Almost every sitcom on TV is saturated with sarcasm. It’s about the only form of humor being used these days — if you can call it humor. Plain and simple, sarcasm is never “nice” or “funny”. It’s a putdown. It’s wolf-like aggression in sheep’s clothing. It’s saying things like, “No, you’re not overweight, you’re just heavily gifted.”

A caustic question is used to hurt, punish, or humiliate someone else. It’s the spouse asking his/her mate, “You spend so much time at work that I was just wondering if you even love your kids?” Or it’s the boss asking, “You don’t seem to think of anyone but yourself, do you?”

And pouters are good at foot dragging. They say they’ll do something, but it takes them forever to do it. They’ll even lie to cover their tracks and say, “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long. I’m just so busy.” Or they keep on “forgetting” to do what they promised they would do. It’s the kid who tells his parents, “Back off. I said I would do it. I just forgot. After all, I’m just human.”

In many cases, the pouters are not as slow, super busy, or forgetful as they might want you to think. They’re simply getting back at you — indirectly.

I know it’s tough out there in some work environments. And I know some families are filled with frustration and anger. But the first step in dealing with that is to AVOID any kinds of behaviors that would make things worse for you. AVOID the four responses I outlined above. And come back next week when I’ll outline a few things you SHOULD DO.

Action:  Which of the four dysfunctional behaviors is most characteristic of you? Internalization? Passivity? Aggression? Indirect Aggression? And which subset of behaviors are you most likely to use?

Catch yourself the next time you are using or are tempted to use any one of the above behaviors. Stop yourself. Remind yourself that they don’t work so you won’t do it.