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Three Things Worth Knowing about Difficult People

Three Things Worth Knowing about Difficult People

“The person who constantly angers you or frustrates you … controls you.” — Colleen Kettenhofen
Do you know any difficult people? Have you ever worked or lived with a difficult person? Are YOU a difficult person?!

It’s amazing how many participants in my leadership training seminars come up to me at the end of the program, “Dealing with Difficult People,” or “Dealing with Difficult Employees,” and confide to me, “Colleen, I think sometimes I’m a difficult person and just realized it today!”

Well, we can all be difficult people from time to time. But how do you handle the person who is chronically difficult? A key component to life balance is learning to deal with difficult people. There will always be difficult people. Here are three important points to remember.

  1. All behavior has a positive intention — even with difficult people.
  2. Low self-esteem is often at the root cause of why people are difficult.
  3. You can’t always please everybody.
  4. All behavior has a positive intention

Take gossip, for example. When someone comes into your office gossiping about everyone else, whom are they trying to make look better? Themselves. That is their positive intention. As a matter of fact, while you are reading this article, what do you think the difficult people/gossips are doing in your office? Gossiping about you! I’m just kidding. Sort of …

I don’t think gossips realize that while they are gossiping to you about everyone else, you are probably thinking, “I wonder what they say about ME when I’m not around?” Remember, they have a positive intention. Strange as it may sound, they are trying to make themselves look better.

What about whiners and complainers? If someone comes to you complaining and whining about how much work they have to do, or how overloaded they are, what are they searching for? They’re looking for empathy; for sympathy. Or, these difficult people are looking for you to do the work for them. That’s their positive intention. Now, we all have times when we’re overloaded and feeling overwhelmed. But I’m talking about the real whiners and complainers. Those you might label “emotional vampires” because they just suck the life out of you.

What about snipers? Believe it or not, even these difficult people have a positive intention. They are the difficult people who throw little digs your way in the hopes of rattling your cage and ruffling your feathers. What’s their positive intention? To make themselves look better. And, they think that by cutting you down, especially in front of others, that they’ll look better. For example, in an open work area, a sniper might walk by and within earshot of others say to you, “Well, there goes Shelly, on her 100th personal phone call of the day!” AND, you weren’t even on a personal phone call!

These snipers are the same difficult people who after cutting you down and insulting you, will say, “Oh, you just have no sense of humor.” They’re trying to put it all back on you. Really though, it’s about them and their own insecurities. Which brings me to the second main point in dealing with difficult people.

Low self-esteem

A lot has been written and talked about regarding self-esteem and self-confidence. Only one out of three adults really has high self-esteem. (Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I know it’s definitely not me!” That’s okay. It’s something you can work on.) The point is, with difficult people it’s not necessarily about you. You aren’t the problem. It’s about THEM. They’re the difficult person. (More later on making sure we’re not the difficult person!)

Low self-esteem often has its roots in childhood. It could be that the “difficult person” was teased by fellow classmates in school, which can result in one having a low opinion of him or herself. Sometimes it’s something a teacher or a parent said; or, perhaps growing up being compared to a superstar sibling. Any number of things can cause low self-esteem. You don’t always know what’s going on with someone else and why they’re behaving the way they do.

A difficult person may also be a person who doesn’t want to change; sometimes you can do all the right things and nothing works because they just don’t want to change or they haven’t been held accountable for needing to change. So remember, focus on the part you can control — you.

You’re not always going to please everyone

You won’t always please everybody so get rid of the notion that you will. We can’t always worry about what “everyone” else thinks of us.

Daniel Amen, M.D., a well-known child and adult psychiatrist and author, has what he calls the 18-40-60 Rule: When you’re 18 years old, you worry about what everyone is thinking of you. When you’re 40, you don’t care anymore what everyone thinks of you. And when you’re 60, you realize nobody’s been thinking about you at all! How true is that?! The older we get, we realize “everybody” isn’t thinking about us.

Also, don’t be a person who tends to dwell. For example, have you ever been in a situation where a week after your encounter with the difficult person you’re still stewing about them, thinking about them, and dissecting what was said? Remember, the person who constantly angers you … controls you.

Keep a pad of paper along with a pen in your car. Anytime you’re afraid you’re going to say something you’d regret, especially if you’re a manager or supervisor, go out to your car during a break. I realize many of you are so busy you don’t even know what a break is anymore! Seriously, though, write down everything you’d like to say, that you never could say. When you arrive home, tear it up or burn it; throw it away.
Be careful, too, of the words you use. Avoid absolutes. For example, don’t say, “You always” and “You never.” It will only put that difficult person further on the defensive. (I once role-played with a gentleman in one of my leadership trainings, and I said “John, you never do the work. You’re always expecting everyone around here to do your work!” He looked at me, pointed and said, “You sound like my wife!” Everyone roared with laughter.)

In conducting leadership training, especially when discussing dealing with difficult people or difficult employees, I sometimes have my participants take the following pledge.

“On my honor, I promise, when dealing with a difficult person, that I will bite my tongue and count to 10. Because if I don’t, I may say something that I will live to regret!”

Colleen Kettenhofen is a speaker, workplace expert and co-author of “The Masters of Success” with Ken Blanchard and Jack Canfield.