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How To Deal With Difficult People

Whiners, Know-It-Alls, and Steamrollers: Strategies to cope with even the most hard-to-take personalities.
by Darylen Cote

We’ve all been there. There are just some people we can’t stand! Perhaps it’s the Whiner whose complaining drives you to distraction. Or it may be the Steamroller who makes you crazy—the person who pushes her ideas and never lets others get a word. People like this can make your PTO leadership experience seem endless and stressful, even blocking achievement of some of your most critical goals.

Every person has his own triggers when it comes to dealing with difficult people. Those triggers stem from your background, perspectives, and from your goals in the situation at hand. But there is good news. There are ways to deal with even the most difficult people that can bring out both their best and your best.

The first step, described by Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner in their book Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, is to get to know your difficult person—to know what needs that person may be trying to fulfill that cause the problematic behavior. Successful leaders listen carefully to figure out the underlying motives.

Video: 6 Tips for Handling Difficult People

Generally, people in any given situation are task oriented or people oriented. Their concerns center on one of four goals: getting the task done, getting the task done right, getting along with people, or being appreciated by people. When they perceive that their concern is threatened—the task is not getting done, it is being done incorrectly, people are becoming angry in the process, or they feel unappreciated for their contributions—difficult people resort to certain knee-jerk responses. Responses range from the passive, such as withdrawal, to aggressive, such as steamrolling or exploding. The difficult person often does not recognize that his behavior contributes to the very problems that he is attempting to address.

Brinkman and Kirschner identify 10 different behavior patterns often exhibited by people under pressure.

  • The Steamroller (or Tank): Aggressive and angry. Victims can feel paralyzed, as though they’ve been flattened.
  • The Sniper: The Sniper’s forte is sarcasm, rude remarks, and eye rolls. Victims look and feel foolish.
  • The Know-It-All: Wielding great authority and knowledge, Know-It-Alls do have lots to offer, are generally competent, and can’t stand to be contradicted or corrected. But they will go out of their way to correct you.
  • The Grenade: Grenades tend to explode into uncontrolled ranting that has little, if anything, to do with what has actually happened.
  • The Think They Know It All: A cocksure attitude often fools people into believing their phony “facts.”
  • The Yes Person: Someone who wants to please others so much that she never says no.
  • The Maybe Person: Procrastinating, hoping to steer clear of choices that will hurt feelings, he avoids decisions, causing plenty of frustration along the way.
  • The Blank Wall (or Nothing Person): This person offers only a blank stare, no verbal or nonverbal signals.
  • The No Person: He spreads gloom, doom, and despair whenever any new ideas arise, or even when old ones are recycled. The No Person saps energy from a group in an amazingly short time.
  • The Whiner: Whiners feel helpless most of the time and become overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all. They want things to be perfect, but nothing seems to go right. Whiners want to share their misery.

Just Get It Done!

Chances are you have had to deal with at least a few of these characters. These are not odd or weird people. They may even be you upon occasion. Everyone has the potential to be difficult given the right, or wrong, circumstances. To understand why, return to the concept of a basic orientation toward people or task. Couple that with the typical ways people respond under pressure, on a continuum from aggressive to assertive to passive. Then add in the goals people have under different circumstances.

According to Brinkman and Kirschner, when the goal is to “get it done,” people with a task orientation and aggressive temperament tend to dig in and become more controlling. They are the Snipers, the Steamrollers, and the Know-It-Alls. From their point of view, the rest of us are goofing off, obtuse, or just plain taking too long. The Steamroller can run over you if you get in the way. The Sniper often uses sarcasm to embarrass and humiliate at strategic moments. The Know-It-All dominates with erudite, lengthy arguments that discredit others and wear down opponents.

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When the goal is to “get it right,” people under pressure who still have a task orientation but a more passive personality become helpless, hopeless, and/or perfectionistic. They become the Whiners, No People, and Blank Walls. When Whiners are thwarted, they begin to feel helpless and generalize to the entire world. Instead of looking for solutions, they complain endlessly that nothing is right, exacerbating the situation by annoying everyone around them.

No People feel more hopeless than helpless. Like A.A. Milne’s Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, their sense of gloom carries its own cloud. Their certainty that things can never be right can pull down morale for an entire group. Blank Walls simply withdraw. They will bear no responsibility when things aren’t exactly right.


Drive To Survive

People who want to “get along” tend to focus more on the people in a situation. When they are innately passive, they become approval-seeking Yes People, Maybe People, and sometimes Blank Walls. Yes People overcommit and underdeliver in an effort to please everyone. Their lack of follow-through can have disastrous consequences for which they do not feel responsible, because they are just trying to be helpful. When, instead, the people they want to get along with become furious, they may offer to do even more, building their lives on what other people want and also building a deep well of resentment.

Maybe People avoid conflict by avoiding any choice at all. Making a choice may upset someone, and then blame will be heaped on the person who decided. Maybe People delay choosing until the choice is made for them by someone else or by the circumstances. When Blank Walls have a people orientation, they want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. The old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” gets carried to the ultimate extreme in this case. But Blank Walls also avoid sharing anything genuine or honest about themselves and therefore never really achieve the “getting along” goal.

Like To Be Liked

To “get appreciated” is the ultimate goal of people-focused, more aggressive folks. They include the Grenade, the Think They Know It All, and sometimes the Sniper. They share attention-seeking behaviors that never accomplish what they intend. The Grenades are aggressive Rodney Dangerfields; they think they get no respect or appreciation. When that feeling builds to a certain point, they have an adult temper tantrum. It’s not pretty and it certainly gets attention, but blowing up never gets them to the ultimate goal of appreciation.

The Think They Know It All person knows a little bit about a lot. He is so charismatic and enthusiastic that his half-facts and exaggerations can sound plausible and persuasive. When people discover that these people really don’t know what they are talking about, the attention they seek becomes negative.

The Sniper in this case is attempting to gain attention by being playful. Many people engage in playful sniping, but we all need to be careful about how it is being received. Whether it is funny or painful is truly in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes this kind of sniping is passed off as teasing, which can leave scars even when it’s friendly.

Looking in the Mirror

So what can you do to change the course of your interactions with these difficult people? There are some simple strategies that work well with practice and patience.

In general, when your difficult person speaks, make your goal habit number five in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand.” Often, unless you’re dealing with the Grenade or other overt hostility, it helps to mirror some of the nonverbal cues the person displays. Don’t overdo, as it can look like mocking if you copy every gesture. Your aim, according to Brinkman and Kirschner, is “blending.” If you adopt some of the same traits as your person, such as a facial expression or posture, you send the message that you are “with” them, on the same wave length. Blending begins to facilitate trust. Often we do this kind of thing without even noticing that it’s happening. You also need to blend vocally with the person you’re trying to understand. Volume and pace are two examples of how to blend with another person. Blending is how you begin to build rapport with people and signal that you are really listening. The only exception is yelling.

Also, some of what the person says needs to be repeated in a technique that counselors call “reflection.” This is a way of feeding back what you’ve heard, on both feeling and content levels, so that a person is sure that you’ve heard him. With no interpretation and without parroting exactly, use some of his actual words to demonstrate your understanding. How much to do it depends on the person you’re dealing with. With Steamrollers, keep reflection to a minimum. With Know-It-Alls, Yes People, and Maybe People, a great deal of reflection may be useful. This is especially true on the feeling level with Yes and Maybe People.

Get to the Real Issues

Next, ask clarifying questions to help your difficult person open up and to ensure that you fully understand all she has to say. The kinds of questions you want are open-ended, those to which there is more than a yes or no answer. They begin with what, how, where, who, when, and sometimes why—without an accusatory tone. A simple “Tell me more about...” can also serve the same purpose.

The importance of this information-gathering stage cannot be overstated. It keeps you out of a reactionary mode and helps you bring all of the issues to the surface. At the same time, it shows that you really care about what the person has to say. It can also begin to defuse emotions and help the person think more logically.

Finally, still in a “seek to understand” mode, summarize what you have heard and confirm your understanding. Do not assume you “got it.” Ask, “Did I get it right?” If not, keep listening until the person is satisfied that you understand.

The next step in the process has to do with attitude. Search for and acknowledge that the other person’s intentions are positive. This means giving the person you are dealing with the benefit of the doubt. Brinkman and Kirschner advise, “Ask yourself what positive purpose might be behind a person’s communication or behavior and acknowledge it. If you are not sure about the positive intent, just make something up. Even if the intent you try to blend with isn’t true, you can still get a good response and create rapport.”

Some Specific Responses

Consider this example.

“One of the duties of the vice president is to choose which six members go to the PTO Show this year,” Jerry reminded Jennifer again. “You have only two weeks before the deadline. Do you have any idea whom you want to go?”

“Not yet,” said Jennifer. “I want to be sure I make the right decision.”

“People need to make their plans, and we need to commit the money. The sooner you make a decision, the better for everyone,” prodded Jerry.

“OK. I’ll get to it,” promised Jennifer.

The next week, when Jerry inquired again, Jennifer said, “I’m still thinking about it!”


Jennifer is a Maybe Person. She will delay her decision until there is almost no decision to make because the deadline has passed or people can no longer rearrange their schedules with the short notice. Jerry might say to Jennifer, “I appreciate the care you are taking with this decision, Jennifer. I know you don’t want to leave out anyone who would like to go or who deserves this special reward. Who have you considered?” Simply stating understanding of Jennifer’s positive intention may unlock her indecision enough to move forward.

The next step to take when conflict emerges is to go beyond people’s stated positions to identify underlying interests or objectives. Brinkman and Kirschner call these “highly valued criteria.” They are the “reasons why” people desire specific outcomes.

Here’s another example:

Susan had agreed to chair the annual PTO carnival. The second planning meeting was underway when Marge, the vice president of the group and also the immediate past chairperson, barged into the room and started to berate Susan. “I heard that you’re eliminating the dunking booth! What a dumb decision. Don’t you have any brains at all? I thought you’d do a good job and now you’re making decisions that will ruin our carnival! Now here’s what you have to do…” And with that she barked orders while everyone else on the committee stared in disbelief. As quickly as she had come, she turned around and left.

Marge typifies the aggressive, angry style of the Tank or Steamroller. Once Susan gets her calmed down, it would be important to ask, “Why the dunking booth?” If she replies that the day invariably is hot and people enjoy the splashing and cooling effect of the water, then you have her underlying interest on the table. Another water game might satisfy that interest just as well, but you do need to slow the Steamroller down before you can get to the whys.

Say What You Mean

Stephen Covey’s habit number five also has a second part. Part one, “Seek first to understand …,” is followed by part two, “…then to be understood.” Once you have put in the time and hard work of deep listening, the goal is to speak so that you may in turn be understood. But watch your tone of voice. The old saying applies: It’s not just what you say but also how you say it.

The next step is to state your positive intentions: “I care that people at the carnival have a chance to cool off, too. I want to make it a fun and safe day.” When the Steamroller starts to interrupt again, tactfully intervene. Repeating someone’s name over and over until she stops to listen can accomplish that end. So Susan might say, “Marge. Marge. Excuse me, Marge.” Once the person has paused, you can insert your positive intent or a clarifying question, for instance. Then speak about the situation as you honestly see it. Use “I” statements, be as specific as possible, point out the impact of the behavior, and suggest a new behavior or option.

So Susan might say, “Marge, I appreciate your input. I know you want the carnival to go well, the same as I do. We replaced the dunking booth with another feature for a good reason. When you try to override our decisions without asking why, it sure makes the rest of us feel like our work isn’t worth much. Would you sit down and discuss our plans with us?” Marge may try to raise the volume and continue to steamroll, at which point Susan would need to start repeating her name again until she stops. Once Susan gets her piece said, she will need to be ready to stop and listen again.

When you have a Blank Wall, the person who chooses the ultimate passive response instead of an aggressive response, your tactics need to be a little different. First, even though you may not feel particularly relaxed, calm yourself. It will not help to push, so plan plenty of time. Ask the open-ended questions with an expectant tone and body language. Try to lighten things up with absurd guesses as to the cause of the silence. Be careful with humor, but if you can get at least a smile, it’s a beginning.

Make It a Habit

Difficult people are really all of us. Depending on the circumstances and our own perspectives, our behaviors can slip-slide into the childish, rude, or even churlish realms. The key is to think first instead of simply reacting when we feel pressured by time or by the competing interests and needs of others.

Thoughtful responses can help people identify their real needs and break negative behavior patterns that don’t serve anyone well. If you make a habit of listening deeply, assuming best intentions, looking for common ground, reinforcing and expecting people’s best behavior along the way, then the difficult people in your life may come to view you as a respected friend—as opposed to one of their most difficult people.

 

Comments   

#18 Craig Bystrynski 2013-05-15 14:34
I'd urge you to stick with it and not let this current dispute affect the future. One nice thing about being president is that you can run the group your way -- if you like to stick to procedures and feel that's the most effective way to do things, then you can run the group that way as president. Just because the current president seems to have her own personal style, that doesn't mean you have to follow it when you take over.
#17 PTA mom 2013-05-15 14:17
I'm vice of PTA but nominated president for the new year.
I got along with all Members I still do but I got into an argument with president. She takes things personal and I like business. If something goes wrong she wants to skip procedures and try fixing matters on her own. But we have to follow rules!!!!
Anyways I don't talk to her much. Our friendship is gone. I don't want to be the next president. Should I step down or stick with it? I want to be a part of PTA but I don't want to deal with this.
How do I step down without looking bad and irresponsible?
Help
#16 Acai 2013-05-15 13:28
I hate people who try to be peacemakers and step in and mediate when one person was simply standing up for themselves to someone who needed to be stood up to.
The idiot who tries to smooth things over then undermines the assertion attempt. I hate people who do that.
#15 Help 2012-02-22 01:57
The staff at my 4th graders school hates it when the PTO helps out at book fairs they don't want parents at school for field days saying its a teacher only event but want us to raise money for waters shirts ex. Today at a book fair I was told I was taking away a paying job and they were calling the union I have never felt so unwanted in my life. I still want to help my child with the money the school needs for field trips and extras like the water and shirts last year we left the school with 5000 dollars for next year. How can the PTO. Handle teachers and staff that don't want us at the school.
#14 HR 2011-12-14 02:59
We have a PTO VP that is just annoying. She talks and talks and talks about herself and her children until no one wants to listen anymore. A lot of talking and no meat. I do think she is one that is described as perceiving herself as under-appreciat ed. How do we appease her and get her to stick to the point and keep it brief?
#13 Trying Hard 2011-12-12 21:04
I agree with Lee. We have a very similar situation at our school, and see that others have posted the same. This is exactly why people do not get involved.

You can't complain when you hand pick those that you want and then it doesn't turn out the way that you want it.

I know that all of us do what we can, and believe that it makes a huge difference!
#12 Stressed out 2011-11-03 02:56
I am a first time president, but I have been helping/on the PTO Exec. Board for the last 4 years. This year the VP is new to PTO. We have clashed here and there. I feel like she is trying to take over everything. When I tell her this she turns it around to make it sound like I am just not delegating anything. However, the times this has happened I haven't had anything to delegate. Now she has informed me (Literally) that she plans on taking over next year. How do I handle this situation? It is way to early in the year for these kinds of problems. I am so stressed! I want to handle the situation appropriately, but at this point I am not sure how?
#11 Anonymous1 2011-10-18 13:40
Part2 of Anoymous 1-We have to work closely, and we even have to travel out of town together, with 7 others in our group, and I'm very concerned that she and I may butt heads again while we are concurrently travelling. I'm very worried that our dislike and public dispute has discredited the respect and dignity I so deserve from my cohorts, as well as possibly even management! I desperately need help with how to deal with this problem. I show courtesy and respect, always, but it's not returned. I've been told by others I sought advice from that I may need to begin seeking/explori ng different employers, but I've invested so much time with my current employer and I don't want to give that up for a problem I've never experienced before. I thought it was depression, but I'm not depressed, just like anyone else I don't like being mistreated. So how do I regain my co-workers respect? How do I regain my confidence? I don't want to be disliked or walked over any longer.
#10 Anonymous1 2011-10-18 13:35
Part 1 from Anonymous1- This article is AMAZING!!!!I Lately, I thought I had been losing my mind, but after reading this article I realize that it's NOT all in my head! LOL! I work with a group of women that each characteristic you described are identified. I swear you would think we were a BIG science experiment for the company we work for! (LOL) On a serious note, I've been struggling for almost 2 yrs now with how to deal/cope with working with difficult people in a work environment. At this point, I recognize that alot of times I feel helpless, hopeless, and the worst, I withdraw myself & often times I can be found with the blank stare on my face because I just want to dissociate myself from everyone and my surroundings. About 1 month ago, a co-worker & I had a loud dispute in the workplace & she called me "Stupid" the word didn't bother me it was her unprofessionali sm & loudness that ignited my animosity in the situation. We were warned by our bosses, but didn't receive a write-up, this time.
#9 Lee 2010-11-21 22:13
How do you deal with a new president when all the president does is pick her "certain" people on a continuous basis for things and has things discontinued without have the PTO vote on it. The president and the principle have done this on a couple of occasions

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