How to Deal with Difficult People Vol. 1
Is your boss driving you crazy? Are your co-workers getting on your last nerve?
If you need help coping with difficult people, check out my tips for dealing with these 4 difficult personality types: the bully, the whiner, the gossip, and the know-it-all.
Difficult Personality #1: The Bully
Bullies in a professional environment have learned to be successful over a period of years by pushing people around.
I once worked with a hotheaded consultant (we’ll call her Sue) who enjoyed calling me names, insulting me, and dismissing my ideas. My first few months on the job, I learned to fear and loathe her.
Every Friday morning, like clockwork, she would call me on the phone and say, “John, how’s that project coming along?”
Whenever I admitted my team was still behind schedule, she would launch into a tirade of Biblical proportions. I would sit there, listening to the rabid sound of her wailing, emotionally exhausted, wishing she’d go away. “Idiot!” she would hiss.
Truth be told, my team was behind schedule for good reason: there was a design flaw in a legacy system (through no fault of our own) that we needed extra time to fix. Unfortunately, Sue was too busy yelling to listen. Whenever I tried to tell her what was going on, she’d say, “John, just focus on the requirements. Hit the due date!”
But here’s the thing about bullies: If you don’t stand up to them, they’ll ignore everything you say, as if you (and your point of view) simply do not exist. The bully recognizes two types of people: weak and strong. The weak do not matter.
Because the bully is accustomed to people clamming up, running away, or throwing a fit in reaction to her tirades, you must avoid these responses when you stand up to her.
Stay calm. Focus on the sound of your voice and your body posture to make both as relaxed and confident as possible. Firmly (but politely) express your ideas to the bully, even if she has dismissed you.
When you confront her, never attack her ideas directly. Carefully explain that you understand and appreciate her point of view, then proceed to use words like “I feel that,” or, “In my opinion,” to validate your own perspective without undermining hers.
If you’re successful at standing up to the bully without posing a threat, don’t be surprised if she suddenly wants to be your friend. That’s the weird thing about bullies. Once you prove you’re strong, they suddenly start acting like they need your approval.
Every Friday when Sue called me for an update, I started saying, “Listen, Sue, I hear what you’re saying about the importance of hitting our due date. But all of my professional experience tells me it’s important to fix the legacy system too – if we don’t, I feel the application will crash.”
The first time I tried explaining this to her, she interrupted me and started yelling again. So I quickly cut her off in a firm voice and said, “Sue, you interrupted me. I expect you to listen to everything I have to say before you make up your mind.”
Once I proved to her that my opinions were worth listening to and that I was willing to stand up to her in order to express them, she became one of my best friends and biggest cheerleaders.
Difficult Personality #2: The Whiner
Whiners turn complaining into a way of life.
As a general rule, listening to the complaints of peers and subordinates is a good idea because they offer fertile ground for innovation and improvement. But on my projects, I had a special rule for whiners: Don’t complain unless you’re prepared to drive a solution.
Whiners view themselves as helpless. That’s why they’re complaining to you –because they think it’s your job to fix their problem. By helping the whiner create a solution, you help him understand his own power and responsibility.
If he’s unable to provide a solution, ask him to track data pertaining to the problem for the next couple of weeks and to send it to you in writing. Many whiners won’t do this, meaning you’ll never hear from them again. If they do, help them come up with ideas for a solution based on the data they’ve collected.
Difficult Personality #3: The Gossip
The gossip flits around the office, from cube to cube, spreading rumor, opinion, and general ill will about everyone she knows.
One way to deal with the gossip is to stay out of her way. I learned to put on my headphones whenever my office gossip came around, concentrating on my work until she went away.
If you can’t completely avoid her, try discouraging her from spreading her web of gossip near you by asking tough questions. For example, when Sally starts telling you all the things she hates about Jim, ask her if she’s bothered to tell Jim how she feels. If she says no (which she probably will), ask her why she’s telling you instead of dealing with the problem.
If you’re her peer, she may try to make you feel good by suggesting you’re in her circle of trust and that she’s sharing information with you because of your bond. But don’t be fooled – the gossip is driven by one motivation: the need to gossip – and you just happen to be in her path.
At my last job, I finally got tired of dealing with the office gossip and said to her, “Listen, what I’m about to say is intended to help you. But I honestly believe you’d be happier if you focused on the solution instead of the problem. Let me know if you want me to help you find a solution; otherwise, this conversation is not helping either one of us.”
If your gossip, like mine, doesn’t really want a solution, she’ll leave you alone after that. Of course, that won’t stop her from gossiping about you, which is one reason why it’s important to be polite and supportive (try smiling) when you express your opinions to her.
Difficult Personality #4: The Know-It-All
Genuine know-it-alls are smart people with perfectionist tendencies and a deep understanding of a topic. The know-it-all has learned to trust his own logic (read: not yours) as a survival mechanism. He believes he is in charge of his own destiny, and that his ability to understand the world is essential to who he is.
To the know-it-all, you’re a peon until you’ve established yourself as an expert authority figure.
If you’re arguing with a true know-it-all, there are 3 rules you should know:
- First, have all your ducks in a row before you start the conversation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, the know-it-all will disregard you as incompetent.
- Do not contradict the know-it-all’s logic, as this will be seen as a personal attack. The know-it-all and his logic are tied up within in the same knot – do not try to untie this knot!
- Ask open ended questions to which you already know the answers, relying upon the know-it-all’s amazing ability to reason and pontificate to move him closer to your point of view.
If your point of view is logical, his personality will compel him to adopt it. If you’re point of view is not logical, you’ll soon find out why, which may provide you a starting point for your next persuasive conversation with the know-it-all.
By no means is this list of difficult personalities comprehensive. Just off the top of my head, I can think of 4 others: the slacker, the pot-shot artist, the hot-air artist (otherwise known as the pretend know-it-all), and the eternal pessimist. If there’s enough interest, we’ll tackle those 4 in a future article.
In the meantime, I hope my tips for handling workplace bullies, whiners, gossips, and know-it-alls will help you.
June 27, 2007 Wednesday at 2:50 pm