Bambi vs. Godzilla
How to Deal With Difficult People By Psychologist, Bruce Christopher
Difficult people are everywhere! They can be our co-workers, customers, supervisors, neighbors, and even family members. Difficult personality types can drain us of our energy and move us from a positive position to a negative state of mind very quickly. Many of us would like to avoid interacting with difficult people, or even worse, we can’t help but react to them with frustration and defensiveness.
Imagine this scenario, you are sitting in a dental office reception room waiting calmly for your appointment. Then, a well dressed professional looking man walks into the waiting area, strolls up to the to the receptionist and says, “Good afternoon, My name is Mr. Jones, I am here for my three o’clock appointment.” The receptionist greets him warmly, looks down into her scheduling book, turns the page, looks up and says, “Mr. Jones, I can see here that your appointment is for next Thursday at three o’clock, not today.”
“What?!”, he explodes, “Do you think I’m incompetent and don’t know how to read a calendar!! What is your name young lady?! I’m going to talk to the doctor about you and your employment!!!”
I asked an audience in one of my corporate seminars the question of why there are difficult people, and why do they do what they do? With quick wit, a woman exclaimed, “Because they are evil!” Though it may feel that way sometimes, in actuality, difficult people do what they do for a very strategic reason.
Think about the dental office story; why would this man explode in front of the receptionist in this manner? Because more likely than not, she is going to try to fit him into the schedule that day. You see, difficult people do what they do, not because they are evil, but because it works.
It is a strategy of problem-solving which they learned in childhood and carry into their adult relationships. Much of our personality development is a result of how we learned to handle conflict as children. In our preceding example, Mr. Jones most likely figured out as a child, that a way to handle conflict and get his needs met is by throwing a temper-tantrum. His behavior in the dental office is a
micro-cosm of how he attempts to solve problems as an adult. Probably he explodes in the other relationships of his life as well; he explodes at his kids, his wife, and his co- workers. He has become an EXPLODER.
The first rule of thumb to realize when encountering a difficult person is to understand that they are not evil; they are simply displaying for you their primary defense mechanism and their unconscious strategy of getting their needs met.
It is unconscious because most often, the individual is blind to their own behavior. You may recall talking to an exploder in your life and pointing out to them that they are
yelling at you. “I am not yelling!!!!”, they may shout as their volume escalates even more.
How do we deal with these difficult personality types? Can we change them? The answer to the second question is no. You cannot change someone else; in fact, the more you try to change them, the more resistant they will become to your efforts.
Though you cannot change difficult people, you can deal with them by employing the technique of what I call “The Surprise Effect.” The Surprise Effect means four things; first, it means that you can do the exact opposite of what people expect you to do, second, it means you can take control of your own responses, third, it means you can be proactive with people and not reactive, and fourth, it means you can interrupt frustrating and dysfunctional patterns of behavior in relationships.
This works because most interpersonal interactions have an expected routine or outcome. For example, the expected outcome of anger is defensiveness. If someone explodes at me with anger, you can pretty much expect that I will become defensive and may even explode back.
On the flip side, what if instead of buying into the expected argument, I could re-script my own responses and do something totally unexpected and unanticipated? That would result in a different outcome!
In my seminar, I ask a volunteer from the audience to help me demonstrate the power of the Surprise Effect. I ask my helper to stand facing me with about two feet distance between us. We put both our hands up, palms facing forward, and on the count of three we will apply pressure on each other’s hands, trying to cause the other to loose their balance. However, these directions are a set up from me. Instead of pushing back on my “opponent” as he or she expects, I do the opposite by pulling my hands back at the last moment. The result is invariably that the other person falls forward, loosing their balance while I stay centered, balanced, and empowered. I have surprised them by doing the exact opposite of what they have expected me to do.
Great communicators know how to do this intuitively. Instead of buying into the expected routine or outcome, they change the rules of the game by employing the Surprise Effect. If you can do it, the Surprise Effect allows you to stay centered and balanced, while your antagonist will loose center and balance.
For example, during a planning meeting you are giving a presentation about current trends in your industry. Right in the middle of your speech, one of your competitors yells out, “You know, you are really full of S __ __ __!” What would you do or say? The expected response might be for most of us to become defensive, or worse yet, maybe even reactive and yell back, “Well, you are too buddy!”
But imagine using a Surprise Effect to do the exact opposite of what your rival expects you to do — perhaps you could use humor and say, “That is an amazing insight, most people take months to reach that conclusion, you came to it in only 45 minutes.” This is actually a true story. It worked wonderfully; everyone laughed and the dialogue opened up to a more receptive audience.
The Surprise Effect shows us that we cannot change or control other people, but we can change and control our responses in any difficult situation. It helps us to see that we can interrupt the pattern of expected outcomes which difficult personality types are often counting upon.
There are six basic difficult personality types which I talk about in my seminar. Remember that these personality types are really defense mechanisms which the individual developed in childhood as a way to deal with conflict or get their needs met.
Let me introduce them briefly to you. First are the TANKS & EXPLODERS; these are the intimidating and aggressive personality types which use power to demand that their needs be met. Exploders often believe that no one will listen to them unless they blow up!
Second, are the SNIPERS; these people use sarcastic and cutting jokes to distract attention from their own feelings of insecurity or incompetence onto to a more likely target. They use humor to get in a dig at someone else.
Next are the KNOW-IT-ALLS; they believe that “to be right is to be liked”, so they use intellectualism to impress others and gain status. They tend to be group dominators and may grasp for the spotlight in staff meetings.
Then come the WET-BLANKETS & FIRE-HOSERS; these are the complainers and chronically pessimistic/negative individuals in our personal and professional lives. They tend to be missionaries of misery and like to point out to others how bad things can get around here. They often feel powerless to do anything about it, so they tend to complain and throw a “wet blanket” on new and good ideas.
Fifth on the list are SUPER-AGREEABLE CHARMERS; they are socially seductive and charming, yet tend to be super unreliable. Because of their high need for approval and fear of rejection, they tend to become accommodating and may often over-extend themselves trying to meet other people’s needs. But in the process may begin to “drop the ball” on personal and professional commitments and will attempt to use social charm as a way to distract attention away from the broken promise.
Finally, are the CLAMS & INDECISIVES; they tend to clam-up in the face of risk. In the sense that they are perfectionists and fear failure, their strategy is to lay back and remain indecisive in the hope that someone else will take the risk and decide for them.
It is essential to note that these are simple defense mechanisms which people use in a pressure situation. We can all be found in some degree in each of these defensive strategies. When the pressure is on, some of us clam up, some of us explode, and some of us try to charm our way out. Many of us have a primary style with which we are most comfortable, and this integrates into our personality and becomes a way we handle conflict as an adult.
I encourage the people in my seminar to come up with a “Behavioral Map” which they can use whenever they encounter a difficult personality type. Your “Map” can include two columns for each of the six difficult personalities. Take six pieces of paper, label each sheet of paper at the top with the six personality types outlined in this article. Draw a line down the middle of each sheet; label the left-hand column “What I Should Not Do” and label the right-hand column “Surprise Effects.”
It is possible to restructure interpersonal events by being prepared with a Surprise Effect. For example, a few years ago I was living in an apartment complex and I had recently taken up a new hobby of boating. So I purchased a boat. While having no place to store my boat, I asked the management of the apartment complex if I could temporarily take up two parking spaces to pull in my boat until I found adequate space. No problem they said.
One night while parking my boat, a car squeals into the lot and an irate gentleman begins to explode at me, “I can’t believe you are taking up two spaces!! You know, we pay rent here too!!!”
I remembered my training on the Surprise Effect; I calmly waited until he was finished and then I surprised him by saying, “Sir you are absolutely right.”
The change which came over his face was amazing! “I am?”, he said. “Yes”, I continued, “I realize that you pay rent here too and that there are too few spaces; but I want you to know that I got permission from the management to do this and that it is a very temporary situation.” At the end of our brief conversation, he literally said, “Well. . .okay, and I’ll watch the boat for you.”
In less than two minutes he went from being my antagonist to being my ally and protecting my property! Why did this happen? Because I surprised him by doing the exact opposite of what he expected me to do. He was anticipating my defensiveness and anger, while instead I listened and acknowledged his feelings of frustration. I didn’t try to change him or talk him out of his anger, but rather, I controlled and changed my own responses.
There are many Surpass Effects which you can employ in any situation and with all of the six basic difficult personality types. I encourage you to have fun and think up two or three effective Surprise Effects which you can apply with the difficult people you interact with in your personal and professional life.
To jump start your thinking in the right direction, can you pick out the best course of action using a Surprise Effect for each of the four scenarios in this article?
What would you do. . . ?
You are a customer service rep. for ABC Company, Inc. During an appointment, one of your client’s angrily explodes at you. To diffuse his anger, you should. . .
a) Explode back
b) Tell him that what he is saying is so important that you’d like to get a
notebook and take down all his concerns c) Explain your side of the story
d) Cry & show how much his anger hurts you
What would you do. . . ?
During a staff meeting, one of your colleagues tells a joke about you to the rest of the group. They all laugh, but you feel cut down and hurt. You should:
a) Laugh & pretend that it didn’t hurt at all
b) Tell a joke back on that person
c) Look directly at that person and say in a loud voice, “Stop it!” d) Get her alone & ask if she really feels that way about you
What would you do. . . ?
After working all day long, then cooking & serving dinner, you ask dad & kids to help out by cleaning the dishes. They promise to help, but night after night your request goes unheeded. You feel angry, frustrated, and resentful. You should:
a) Immediately start to nag
b) Throw away all the dishes (except your own place setting) and
cheerfully let them eat off paper plates with plastic utensils c) Threaten to leave the family unless they buckle down & help d) Ground the kids & give your husband the “cold shoulder”
What would you do. . . ?
You are at work, you notice the company “Wet-Blanket” coming toward you. She corners you & says, “Things are soooo bad around here! The morale stinks! All everyone does is complain, complain, complain!” You should. . .
a) Say: “It’s not so bad, cheer up!”
b) Say: “You might be right, why don’t you come up with some ideas and
proposals about what we can do about it & let’s bring them to our
c) Say: “Well, things may be bad, but I’m going to have a great day
d) Say: “Ooooh, I am so sorry for you. Tell me more about your feelings
and how I can help you.”
Answers for the scenarios:
The exploding client: b) The best surprise effect in this situation is b). Exploders are used to having people either explode back, defend, or crumble in the face of their emotional outbursts. Exploders explode because they believe know one will listen to them unless they emotionally escalate. Therefore, taking a notebook to write down all of their concerns is a surprise effect for them — having someone write down everything that is bothering you is the ultimate in attention. And it interrupts the pattern; how can one explode when you are taking notes on them?
The sniping colleague: d) The best surprise effect in this situation is d).
Snipers use humor to get in a dig at someone else. This is an indirect and passive- aggressive way to deflect attention from themselves and onto another. The best way to smoke out a sniper is to remove them from their cover, which in this case is the group of people in the staff meeting, and ask them direct questions. You can ask her a direct question like this while alone with her: “Mary, you told a joke about me in the staff meeting, and everyone laughed, but I sensed a dig there — do you really feel this way about me?” Of course she will say no, or that it was just a joke and you are being too sensitive. This line of questioning is uncomfortable for a sniper because it is too direct and puts the spotlight on them. Most often the sniper will think twice about taking a shot at you again, because you may have another one-on-one conversation with them, which they hate.
The lazy family: b)The best surprise effect for the lazy family is b). Most of the time, we become angry with people because we can’t get them to do what we want them to do — even if we are right! In this scene, mother has a reasonable request for help, but dad and kids are resisting her. She may resort to nagging, threats, or punishment; but these strategies tend to create more resistance. An effective surprise may be to
disengage from trying to change them, and simply allow them to eat off paper plates and use plastic utensils, while mom continues to eat with the fine china. This is a true story from Dr. Harriet Learner’s book, The Dance of Anger, which actually results in the family getting the message in a fun and creative manner.
The company wet-blanket: b) The best surprise effect for the wet-blanket is b). Wet-blankets are complainers and pessimists who are used to people trying to talk them out of their misery or cheer them up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Complainers complain because they typically feel powerless to do anything about it. Empowering them by moving them toward solution-seeking behavior can help them to do more while complaining less. However, most we-blankets will not do the project, they would rather complain, yet they are unlikely to wet-blanket you again; because you are going to move them toward solutions and they don’t want to go there!
Psychologist and Humorist, Bruce Christopher “Comedy with Content”
Bruce Christopher Seminars https://www.bcseminars.com
Phone: 952-988-9466 Nationally: 888-887-8477