We all have difficult people we need to deal with in our lives on a daily basis. While such characteristics may be exaggerations, you may find traits of them in a few of the people in your workplace, amongst your friends, or even a loved one. Psychological research has suggested several ways of coping with difficult people in your life, e.g. hostile co-workers or bosses, complainers, super-agreeables, know-it-all experts, pessimists, and stallers.
1. The Hostile Co-worker or Boss
Dealing with hostile people requires both tact and strength. Since persons who feel they have been wronged are more likely to be belligerent and violent, you should first try to be sure they have been dealt with fairly.
In addition, it would be wise to help them meet as many of their needs as possible without reinforcing their aggressiveness or discriminating in their favor. Likewise, avoid interactions with them that encourage intense emotions or threats of violence. Certainly do not interact with your angry “enemies” when they are drinking or carrying weapons. Say or do nothing that would incite more anger or, on the other hand, cause you to appear to be scared, weak, and a “pushover.”
In most cases, strong retaliation against an aggressive person is the worst thing you can do. Nastiness begets nastiness. Hostility escalates. Threats of punishment may also work. Remember punishment is only effective while the punisher is observing — watch out for subtle rebellion.
If you can divert the angry person’s attention to some meaningful task or a calm discussion of the situation, the anger should subside. Also, offer him/her any information that would explain the situation that upsets him/her. Point out similarities or common interests between him/her and the person they are mad at (you). Let him/her see or hear about calm, rational ways of resolving differences. Almost anything that gets him/her thinking about something else will help.
The Institute of Mental Health Initiatives provide a brief list of ways to calm an angry person: reduce the noise level, keep calm yourself, acknowledge that the irate person has been wronged (if true) or, at least, acknowledge their feelings without any judgment, ask them to explain their situation (so you can tactfully correct errors), listen to their complaints without counter-attacking, explain your feelings with non-blaming “I” statements, show that you care but set limits on violence (“I’d like to work it out with you but I’ll have to call the police if you can’t control yourself”).
2. The Chronic Complainer
What about the chronic complainers? They are fault-finding, blaming, and certain about what should be done but they never seem able to correct the situation by themselves. Often they have a point — there are real problems — but their complaining is not effective (except it is designed to prove someone else is responsible).
Coping with complainers involves, first, listening and asking clarifying questions, even if you feel guilty or falsely accused. There are several don’ts: don’t agree with the complaints, don’t apologize (not immediately), and don’t become overly defensive or counter-attack because this only causes them to restate their complaints more heatedly. Secondly, as you gather facts, create a problem-solving attitude. Be serious and supportive. Acknowledge the facts. Get the complaints in writing and in precise detail; get others, including the complainer, involved in collecting more data that might lead to a solution. In addition to what is wrong, ask “What should happen?” If the complainer is unhappy with someone else, not you, you may want to ask, “Have you told (the complainee) yet?” or “Can I tell __________?” or “Can I set up a meeting with them?” Thirdly, plan a specific time to make decisions cooperatively that will help the situation…and do it.
3. The Super-Agreeable
What about the persons who are super nice and smilingly agree with your ideas until some action is required, then they back down or disappear. Such people seek approval. They have learned, probably as children, that one method for getting “love” is by telling people (or pretending) you really care for and/or admire them. Similarly, the super-agreeables will often promise more than they deliver: “I’ll get the report done today” or “I’d love to help you clean up.” They are experts in phoniness, so don’t try to “butter them up.”
Instead, reassure the super-agreeable that you will still like them even if they tell you the truth. Ask them to be candid and make it easy for them to be frank: “What part of my plan is okay but not as good as it could be?” Help them avoid making promises they can’t keep: “Are you sure you can have the money by then? How about two weeks later?” Tell and show them you value their friendship. Let them know you are ready to compromise because you know they will be more than fair.
4. The Know-It-All Expert
Know-it-all experts are of two types: the truly competent, productive, self-assured, genuine expert and the partially informed person pretending to be an expert. Both can be a pain.
The true expert may act superior and make others feel stupid; they may be bull headed and impatient with differing opinions; they are often self-reliant, don’t need or want any help, and don’t want to change. If you are going to deal with the true expert as an equal, you must do your homework thoroughly; otherwise, they will dismiss you. First of all, listen to them and accurately paraphrase their points. Don’t attack their ideas but rather raise questions that suggest alternatives: “Would you tell me more?” or “What do you think the results will be in five years?” “It probably isn’t a viable choice but could we consider…?” Secondly, show your respect for his/her competence but don’t put yourself down. Lastly, if the expert can not learn to consider others’ ideas, you may be wise to graciously accept a subordinate role as his/her “helper.” True experts deserve respect.
The pretentious-but-not-real expert is relatively easy to deal with because he/she (unlike liars or cons) is often unaware of how little he/she knows. Such a person can be gently confronted with the facts. Do it when alone with them. Help them save face. They simply want to be admired.
5. The Pessimist
Another “burden” to any group is the pessimist –the person who always says, “It won’t work” or “We tried that.” These angry, bitter people have the power to drag us down because they stir up the old pool of doubt and disappointment within us. So, first of all, avoid being sucked into his/her cesspool of hopelessness. Don’t argue with the pessimist; don’t immediately offer solutions to the difficulties predicted by the pessimist.
Instead, make optimistic statements — showing that change is possible — and encourage the group to brainstorm leading to several possible alternatives. Then ask what are the worst possible consequences of each alternative (this gives the negativist a chance to do his/her thing but you can use the gloomy predictions in a constructive, problem-solving way). Also ask, “What will happen if we do nothing?” Finally, welcome everyone’s help but be willing to do it alone because the pessimist won’t volunteer.
6. The Staller
Every group has a “staller,” a person who puts off decisions for fear someone will be unhappy. Unlike the super-agreeable, the staller is truly interested in being helpful. So, make it easier for him/her to discuss and make decisions. Try to find out what the staller’s real concerns are (he/she won’t easily reveal negative opinions of you). Don’t make demands for quick action. Instead, help the staller examine the facts and make compromises or develop alternative plans (and decide which ones take priority). Give the staller reassurance about his/her decision and support the effective carrying out of the decision.
Of course, these tips are largely just starting points in your efforts to better cope with the difficult people in your life. If you’d like to learn more in-depth techniques and ideas for improving your life, please check out my free online self-help book, Psychological Self-Help.
Clay Tucker-Ladd, Ph.D. is the author of the original and oldest online self-help book, Psychological Self-Help. This excerpt was reprinted from “Chapter 9: Understanding Ourselves and Our Relationships” and “Chapter 7: Anger and Aggression.” Dr. Tucker-Ladd is now gone, but was the chairperson of the Psychology Department at Eastern Illinois University in the 1970s and maintained a private practice in Illinois.