Well, I've got some good news and bad news for you. The good news is ... only 20% of the people you deal with ... on and off the job ... are truly difficult people. The bad news is ... those 20% can take up to 80% of your time ... if you're not careful and skilled.
It's a problem, to be sure. Wherever I speak in the world, people come to me after the program and ask the same question. They ask me how they can deal with a difficult person in their life.
My question askers are distraught. They don't know what to do. Some are thinking of quitting their jobs, moving to a new location, or suspending a long-term relationship.
Those options are very expensive. They'll cost you lots of time, money, and energy -- while the difficult person just goes on being difficult. You should only do those things as a last resort.
A better approach is to learn to deal with the difficult person. Learn how to change him or cope with him. So let's look at three types of difficult people you're going to encounter.
1. The Complainers
My friend and colleague, sales trainer Jim Meisenheimer says, "Some people walk into a room and suck out all the oxygen." I think that's a pretty good definition of a chronic complainer. They gripe incessantly about what's not working, but they seldom if ever do anything about the object of their irritations. They would rather give you reasons why their problems can't be solved.
If you have to live or work with a complainer, I've found these tactics work very well.
Listen carefully so you know whether or not if his complaint is legitimate or merely a part of his overall non-stop pattern of griping.
- Acknowledge the complaint, and paraphrase what you heard so the complainer knows you understand the complaint.
Ask for specific examples. Don't settle for such comments as "they never" ... or ... "they always."
- Apologize for the fact that she is having a hard time or is experiencing some troubling feelings ... without accepting blame.
- Move the discussion toward problem-solving. Ask, "How would you like this discussion to end?"
- Stay away from who's right and who's wrong. Instead, focus on what are we going to do about this problem.
- State what you can and will do. Don't waste your time saying what you can't or won't do.
Above all, don't lose your cool. Don't let them push your buttons. As I share in my program on The Partnership Payoff: The 7 Keys To Better Relationships And Greater Teamwork, if you lose your cool, you've lost your mind. And that is precisely the time when you are most likely to say and do things which you'll later regret.
As Epictetus taught a few thousand years ago, "Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him."
So don't ever tell yourself "that other person makes me so mad." No they don't. If you're upset or angry with somebody else, it's because you let yourself get upset and angry. Just remember you're in charge ... not the Complainer. As educator Molefi Asante teaches, "There are two things over which you have complete domination, authority, and control -- your mind and your mouth."
2. The Know-It-Alls
I'm sure you've run across your share of these difficult people. They think they are smarter than you, and they want you to acknowledge their superiority. Pomposity and condescension are their stock-in-trade.
Know-It-Alls are highly opinionated, speak with great authority, and are very sure of themselves. They have all the right answers ... or at least think they do ... so they're very impatient with others as they spew out their facts, details, reports, and studies.
To make it a bit more challenging, Know-It-Alls come in two varieties: Bulldozers and Baboons.
Bulldozers are genuine experts with an attitude problem. They are competent, careful people who make plans and carry them out, despite great obstacles. They just have very little need -- or use -- for other people. And so they're guilty of using disrespectful language and a demeaning tone, saying such things as: "Look dummy" ... "If you would just" ... "What do you know about it" ... and ... Would you just think for a change?"
If you decide to confront a bulldozing Know-It-All, do your homework. Have your facts lined up. Present the "true" facts as another set of possibilities for them to consider.
That's what one older lady did when she was confronted by a grocery store clerk who gave her a demeaning, bulldozing, environmentally-radical response when she chose plastic bags for her groceries. The cashier told her ... in no uncertain words ... that plastic bags weren't good for the environment and she "needed to get with the green thing."
The older lady apologized and then explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."
She went on to say, "Back then, we returned our milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But they didn't have 'the green thing' back in her day."
"In my day, they walked up stairs, because they didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks."
"Back then, they washed the baby's diapers because they didn't have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, instead of brand-new clothing. But they didn't have 'the green thing' back in her day."
The old lady continued. "Back then, they had one TV in the house, not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn't have electric machines to do everything for them. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded-up newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap."
"Back then, they didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But they didn't have 'the green thing' back then."
"They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But they didn't have 'the green thing' back then."
"Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. But, of course, they didn't have 'the green thing back' in her day."
Her response to a bulldozing Know-It-All was quite appropriate because she had her facts all lined up ... facts that challenged the Know-It-All to possibly re-consider his assumptions.
The other type of Know-It-All is the Baboon. They're really bogus experts who pose as the real thing. They have an overwhelming need to be respected as supreme authorities, for indeed, they usually know something about the subject matter in question. Or at the very least, they genuinely believe they have the expertise.
To cope with Know-It-Alls, whether they be Bulldozers or Baboons, try these techniques.
Finally, for the sake of this article," there's one other difficult person you're likely to encounter.
Ignore the inappropriate or disrespectful tone taken by the Know-It-All. They may be trying to get a rise out of you. Well, don't give them the satisfaction of seeing you get upset by their approach.
- Simply agree. Acknowledge the validity of what the Know-It-All is saying. Just agree. It takes the wind out of the Know-It-All's sails.
- Get them to describe their ideas in terms of concrete action. Get them to be specific. Push for detail.
- Thank them for their information, their interest, and their concern. It will soothe their egos and calm down their overbearing Know-It-All tendencies.
- Interrupt them rather than allow lengthy re-explanations of what they just said.
- Get the Know-It-All to self-detect their own flaws. Invite them to engage in a right/wrong search.
- Ask them to go over the good and bad aspects of each of their ideas as well as your own ideas.
- Raise questions without confrontation. Ask them, "How will your information be helpful to me? Why do you want me to use your information instead of my own? What information or point do you think I am not understanding?"
- If you're right, there's no reason to lose your temper, and if you're wrong, you can't afford to. So don't rub it in. Allow them to save face. Leave them a way out.
3. The Super-Agreeables
These are the people, who on the surface, seem so very nice because they agree with everything you say and agree to do everything you ask them to do. In fact, they may have been the kind of people Mark Twain was talking about when he said, "Nothing is harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."
The trouble is, Super-Agreeables are so desperate to be liked that they'll agree with everyone -- including those who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints. They'll tell you what they think you want to hear. But when the push comes to shove, when the time for action has arrived, Super-Agreeables seldom follow through.
When you ask Super-Agreeable what they really, really think, they might say, "I don't mind telling you exactly what I think. I'm undecided."
Obviously, Super-Agreeables are difficult to live and work with. To make them easier to cope with, try these tactics.
- Affirm them and their talents.
- Make openness and honesty non-threatening. Give them approval for their candidness.
- Get them to pinpoint their specific next step.
- Settle for only realistic promises.
- Build in incremental steps, deadlines, and checkpoints for the promises made. Follow up and monitor the results you expect.
- Tactfully confront their lack of follow-through or no-action behavior.
You may never be able to avoid all the difficult people in your life. But you don't have to let those difficult people steal your joy or diminish your productivity. Just learn how to deal with them.
Which of the three difficult people do you find most difficult to deal with? Using some of the tips offered today, what will you do differently the next time you encounter that type of difficult person?
Make every day your payoff day!