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

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.