Who Are the Difficult People and What Can You Do About Them?

When I speak at events, it is not uncommon for people to approach me and tell me about a difficult person with whom they interact. After telling me their experiences, they will ask me, “What should I do?” Instead of avoiding these types of encounters with others as might be our first reaction, with a little knowledge and some helpful guidelines, it is possible to turn a difficult interaction into a more positive one.

What makes communicating with some people challenging? They may not be like us, have differing perspectives, and have other approaches or styles of interacting. Our differences can keep us from connecting with each other. Some people come across as disrespectful in the way they speak and treat others. This is particularly troubling if you are the recipient of this behavior. They may be oblivious of the impact they have on others and leave a wake of chaos behind them. Others may be aggressive or abrasive because they have learned that this behavior gets the results they want. Some may be reluctant to act for fear of making mistakes or causing contention, leading to frustration in those held hostage by their indecision. Others are managing stressors poorly which they inadvertently take out on others. These are just a few of the types of difficulties you may encounter when working with others.

Whatever the reason for these interpersonal challenges, it is important to recognize and identify a strategy for dealing with them.  Here are a few common types of challenging conversation patterns you may encounter, along with some suggestions for how to create a positive outcome.

1. The Competitor always has a bigger and better idea, story, or experience. As soon as you share an idea, they may say something like, “I’ve already tried that….”  or “I know that but…”, then they will offer their idea. They may also try and top you in vocal volume, gestures, and drama. They always seem to want to have the last word on whatever is said. Communicating with them often turns into a competition.

Results: People quit participating in the conversation or sharing their ideas. The competitor’s behavior can become extremely annoying, frustrating, and seem rude. More aggressive or competitive individuals will try and one-up others which can create disagreement and contention. People will come to ignore and avoid working with competitors. This type of behavior often leads to criticism of the competitor behind their back which can negatively impact teamwork, collaboration, and morale.

What to Do: First, it’s important to recognize what’s happening in the moment. You can’t manage a dynamic that you don’t see. Use questions to try and redirect the flow of the conversation. Holding a conversation with the person about their behavior and its direct impact on your willingness to share ideas and experiences will be helpful. Don’t be surprised if they admit that they are unaware of their behavior. Don’t let this be an excuse for letting their behavior continue. Provide them with specific examples and how their behavior impacts others and their results. Discuss how you can respectfully indicate when their behavior is problematic and how they would prefer you let them know.

2. The Storyteller always has a story to tell, often reiterating the same litany over and over again. They may feel strongly about a particular point they want to make, and they want to be understood and acknowledged. When I was an attorney, I found that people who often repeated the same story wanted sympathy and validation for their situation. I have often wondered if people do this because others have not listened to them in the past. The key to understanding this type of conversation pattern is the need to be heard and understood.

Results: It’s easy to become frustrated when people keep repeating themselves and to quit listening. Because they aren’t receiving acknowledgment or recognition about what they are telling you, they will likely continue to repeat themselves. This makes listening to them even more difficult. They may also ask for your advice, but don’t be surprised if they don’t take it. 

What to Do: If a person repeats a point that they believe is important or needs consideration, reiterate what you have heard and understood and then ask questions that would help you identify the value that may be hidden in their conversation. Once you understand what is important to them, you can address it.

If I were speaking with someone who told me the same story repeatedly, I would point out that they had told me the story before, and then ask them if there was something specifically that they wanted me to do or comment on. If you take this approach, don’t be surprised if they stop, think, and then just ask you to listen. Once you’ve acknowledged their point of view, you will likely not hear the story again.

3. The Public Put-down Artist seems to have a negative, critical, or judgmental comment to make about others. They tend to make their comments in public for all to hear. For example, he or she might say, “That will never work,” “That’s ridiculous!” or, “You don’t really know what you’re talking about.” They may use phrases like “Yeah, but…,” to negate what others are saying.

Results: This behavior tends to make everyone uncomfortable. People quit speaking up or sharing their perspectives if there is the possibility that they will be challenged or put on the spot. This can create obstacles that people may not have the courage to overcome, especially if it occurs in a more visible setting, and they are forced to defend themselves. Interacting with people who are critical and negative is tiresome. People tend to avoid them whenever possible.

What to Do: When the negativity begins, ask for the evidence or data that supports their viewpoint. Reaffirm that their perspective is always welcome with supporting evidence. Before your next meeting or interaction, think about who may communicate this way so you are not caught off guard. Select a clear intent and purpose for communicating with them. When they use negative responses, don’t be derailed by their behavior. Stay on track and refocus the conversation to what needs to be accomplished.

4. The Drama King/ Queen seems to love the spotlight. They creatively seek the validation of others by making themselves the center of attention. They may become emotional and paint themselves as the victim. They may tend to blame others, the situation, or something else if the outcome is not as expected. This is a way of relieving themselves of responsibility for any unsatisfactory results.

Results: If people are framing themselves as a victim, they may feel helpless on some level or a loss of control over their situation. Others may feel the need for constant affirmation and put themselves at the center of every encounter.

What to Do:  Asking questions can help people like this to have a more comprehensive perspective about the interaction and their role. For example, you might try some of these questions:

·         “What are your current results?”

·         “How did you contribute to those results?”

·         “If you could do one thing differently to change the outcome, what would it be?”

·         “Why do you feel that way?”

Notice that these questions cause people to reflect on their behavior and to think about what they would do differently. Hopefully the questions you ask will inspire some personal reflection and learning that otherwise might not take place. I often like to ask, “What part of you feels helpless?” and, “Why do you think you’re feeling that way?”

5.The Expert thinks that they know more than anyone else or that their ideas are best. They can come across as arrogant and a know-it-all. This is different than someone who wants to sincerely offer their expertise or advice. People like this believe that they need to constantly prove their knowledge and assert their position. They may also try to take control of the conversation to assert their view. Consequently, they may give unsolicited advice, cut you off mid-sentence, or have some type of evidence for why you are wrong and they are right. 

Results:This behavior can create push-back or resistance in others. Eventually, people will tend to quit speaking up and will keep their ideas and experience to themselves. After a while, people will tend to tune out the expert and ignore what they are saying. If one expert encounters another expert then the fight will be on to be the one who’s “right”. Because many people are conflict-adverse, they will likely avoid confrontation with the expert at all costs.

What to Do: If someone is continually cutting you off or telling you why you’re wrong, try asking them questions and then summarizing to make sure that you have understood their point of view. Then signal that you have a different perspective you would like them to consider. You will need to have concrete reasons and evidence to support your perspective. If they begin cutting you off, you might say something like, “I really appreciate your advice, but before you continue, would you mind if I finished?  I have some information that you may not have considered.” Notice that I am calling them on their behavior and asking them to act differently in the situation. 

There are obviously more difficulties in working with others then outlined here. It is important to remember to notice what others are doing and how their behavior impacts the situation and those around them. Impartially considering why this person might be acting this way will allow you to formulate a strategy for successfully interacting with them. Remember to not take them personally, observe objectively, and then make a plan for interacting with them. You’ll find that by practicing these guidelines, you’ll be able to navigate even the trickiest of conversations

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