Dealing With Difficult People Once And For All

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.

One of my friends, the very astute businessman, Brian Southard recently picked up his son at basketball camp, and while he was there, he had a chance to speak with Coach Brad Stevens, the head basketball coach at Butler University. And if you know anything about sports, you know that Brad Stevens’ accomplishments on and off the court are truly amazing. He has taken his team … from a small school of 4000 students … to the CHAMPIONSHIP game in the NCAA tournament … two years in a row.

So Brian asked the coach what it takes to build such a team. He got a simple, straightforward response. Coach Stevens replied, “When putting a team together, I ask myself one question about each player we are considering recruiting: Does this player INCREASE the energy level in the locker room when he walks in?”

That, Coach Stevens went on to say, is how you build a great team. Find players that increase the energy level in the locker room because positive energy is contagious and creates a synergy that goes far beyond what talent alone can accomplish.

Personally, I think the Coach has a lesson that not only applies to sports but it applies to all businesses and all relationships as well. Hire people or associate with people who INCREASE THE ENERGY IN YOUR BUSINESS OR YOUR LIFE, and you’ll be a great deal more successful.

On the other hand, we sometimes have to work with and live with folks who DECREASE the energy level. They are “difficult” people … to say the least.

And over the years, I’ve found that “difficult” people have several things in common. *They know what they’re doing. They’re not naive. They know they’re being difficult. *They get some satisfaction out of being difficult. They enjoy making life more difficult for you. *They treat many people this way. So don’t ever feel like they singled you out for “special” treatment. *They have been acting this way for a long, long time … perhaps ever since they were young.

But there’s some good news and bad news when it comes to difficult people. The bad news is … we often give difficult people permission to treat us badly. We reward them for being difficult, which encourages them to keep on being difficult. The good news is … we can learn to treat them differently so they behave more appropriately.

You see … you have four choices when it comes to dealing with difficult people … or anyone for that matter. *You can stay and do nothing *You can leave. *You can change your behavior … the way you interact with that person or the way you respond to his/her behavior. *You can change your attitude towards that person.

Let’s focus on the third option … on how you can change your behavior so difficult people start behaving more appropriately. Let’s look at three types of difficult people identified by Robert Bramson in his book “Dealing with Difficult People.”

1. The Clams

These are the people whose silence and unresponsiveness leave you guessing as to what they are thinking and feeling. They give few opinions, seldom ask questions, and are relatively invisible. When they talk, they give short, non-revealing responses like “Yes,” “No,” “Okay,” and “If you say so.” Or as one Clam said, “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.”

Of course, Clams are extremely frustrating because they won’t talk or can’t talk when you need some dialogue with them and some response from them. So you’re stuck having to guess what they think, feel, and want.

If you have to work with or live with Clams, you’ve got to first of all decide if you really want the Clams to open up. Sometimes a wise course of action is to simply let them be. But if you want them to open up, try some of these behaviors … which will often encourage them to change their behavior.

*Ask open-ended questions starting with “who, what, when, where, why, and how.” Ask questions where one-word or one-phrase responses are difficult if not impossible to give.

*Use your very best listening and attending behaviors when a Clam opens up so his/her talking is rewarded with true interest and respect. Paraphrase what the Clam says so he/she knows you really understand.

*Use silence. Make a statement or ask a question, and then be quiet. Wait for the Clam to respond. DO NOT speak first or break the silence. DO NOT answer your own question. That rescues the Clam and reinforces his/her bad behavior.

*Use a perception check. Say something like, “You seem to be feeling ___________. Is that right?”

*Let the Clam know there are no foolish questions, only foolish silence.

*Comment on the quietness. And then give the Clam support for talking without demanding that he/she speak.

*Get them to predict the consequences of their quietness … the impact it will have on the team or the relationship.

*And if all else fails, tell Clams what you plan to do and what your plan assumes about their needs, thoughts, and wishes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of “difficult” people are…

2. The Tanks

They are the aggressive, hostile folks who batter you with criticism. They have a strong sense of what others “should” do and are very impatient with others. In fact if you don’t do what they want, their impatience turns to righteous indignation and anger. They attack you and put you down in hopes that you will back down from your point of view or your way of doing things.

You may feel like running from the Tanks, but don’t do. That’s what Tanks expect … that you will run away. Instead use Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approach. As he puts it, “My father used to say to me, ‘Whenever you get into a jam, whenever you get into a crisis or an emergency … become the calmest person in the room and you’ll be able to figure your way out of it.'”

In addition to that, when you’re confronted by a Tank, use these behaviors.

*Give them time to vent.

*Get them to sit down. It’s harder for a Tank to continue his/her aggression when seated.

*Use the Tank’s name. It tends to slow them down.

*Look them in the eye. Look confident.

*Hold your ground without being aggressive. Some Tanks will respect you for it. The others will at least leave you alone and seek easier prey.

*Stand up for yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Say, “Excuse me. I wasn’t finished.”

*Be clear about what you want and don’t want. Use low-key persistence. Repeat yourself if you haven’t been heard.

*Don’t allow the Tank to talk around you or move ahead without you.

Of course all these strategies will take courage, but courage is just about the only thing a Tank understands and respects. So you’ve got to do more than avoid the Tanks or coddle the Tanks. You’ve got to learn how to deal with them. As the old saying goes, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”

Finally, the most common “difficult” type of person would be…

3. The Nay-Sayers

They’re just plain negative about almost everything. If you suggest a new idea, a new approach, or a new product or service, they’ll say something like, “Nope, won’t work around here” or “They tried that over at XYZ Company, and it didn’t work.” In fact, over the years I’ve catalogued the 50 most common phrases of the Nay-Sayers, which I call “Killer Statements,” because they almost always kill off the energy and motivation in the workplace.

If you find yourself working with a Nay-Sayer, or even living with one, I’ve found a few things that can turn them around.

*Give them time. Don’t rush Nay-Sayers. Bring them up to speed slowly so the logic of your approach has time to sink in. As Mark Twain said, “Timing is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”

*Let them point out any possible problems they see in your ideas, and don’t argue with them when they do. Just ask them how they would solve the problem.

*And if nothing works, excuse yourself from their presence. Just say you need to be at your best today, and as a result, you can’t afford to spend time with anyone who brings you down.

In the final analysis, too many “difficult” people are “difficult” for too long because too many people let them get away with it. Try some of these strategies, and you’ll have a more positive outcome.

Action:  Which of the 3 “difficult” people discussed in today tip “bug” you the most? What are you going to do about it?