Dealing With Difficult People Part 2: The Main Ways To Manage Their Behaviour

In part 1 of this series of posts about dealing with difficult people, we looked at how we need to separate the person from their behaviour. You can’t change a person’s personality or their social conditioning, but you can influence how they relate to you.

You set the standards of how you want to be treated and that’s important in all of our relationships. Communicating constructively and clearly can help you to neutralise conflict and it also signals that you have standards which you want people to respect.

My default conflict strategy is domination. That usually changes depending on context, such as authority, relationship or environment, but in general, I have no problem confronting behaviour which makes me feel devalued, insulted or disrespected.

Domination does not always work. It may if you are dealing with a toddler but not a grown up with needs, feeling and desires and you value their relationship with you.  

There are three types of difficult behaviour; toxic, unskilled and infantile. Here are the main ways to manage them:

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Confront The Person About Their Behaviour

To me, this seems obvious. But not everybody feels comfortable with confrontation. Sometimes, behaviour that is unskilled or infantile just requires you to set down some boundaries and communicate openly what you need from the other person. We do this when we give feedback.

You may, for example, be involved in a high-profile project with a tight deadline which requires teamwork. A team member fails to complete a crucial task that delays completion. You don’t have the time or the resources to dedicate to thinking about ways to influence them. Confrontation is quicker and less energy consuming if you are comfortable doing so.

Speaking to the person about their behaviour has its advantages. You can tone down the message with friendly and open body language and answer any questions that they might have there and then. Putting this in writing may also help you to point to a pattern of behaviour if it is repeated. It’s a more formal way of objecting which should be considered carefully but it will help to show that you are taking this seriously.

As with all scenarios, assess the situation and then decide a conflict resolution strategy. Confrontation done well, can set down boundaries, signal your standards and in turn, earn respect. It’s good if you are short on time, you’re in a position of authority or the person is being particularly disrespectful.

It’s not going to work if the person you are confronting denies that their behaviour is problematic. It might create more conflict if done aggressively and it may cause you stress if you already feel intimidated by this person. Be careful if you are not in a position of authority and the person you are concerned with is your manager. You may have to consider a different approach. Remember, we all have needs and when confronting somebody, don’t forget that they also need to feel respected, accepted, included and heard.

Influence Their Behaviour

This is about devising strategies to make the other person realise that their behaviour needs to change. You are not directly communicating this to the other person, but you are providing incentives to change. You could also use punishments too. This is often referred to as the carrot and stick approach.

This can be effective if the person is your manager and confrontation could lead to conflict. It’s also helpful when you think that confrontation will have little or no impact on the person or they may respond childishly. This could include denial, blaming, saying that that’s just how they are, arguing back unnecessarily, sulking or throwing a tantrum.

For this to work, you need to understand what motivates the person in question. Are they ambitious? Do they like approval and praise? How do they work? Do they have an outside interest that could be factored in?

Here are some examples of incentives:

  • If you turn up on time for a meeting, you get a benefit. This could include refreshments at the start.
  • If you meet the deadline, you can go home early.
  • If you work overtime, you get time in lieu.
  • If you do what I need you to do, you will get credit for it.
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Punishments might include walking away from somebody when they talk to you aggressively and asking them to discuss when they have calmed down. People learn through childhood that certain behaviours work to get them what they want. Recognise this and purposefully ignore tantrums, the silent treatment, sulking or blame. If you cave into it, this will only affirm this behaviour.

It takes some planning and thinking about and when done well, it can change behaviour especially for specific tasks. Be warned, it might not be long term and be careful not to allow it to appear as manipulative which can damage trust and cooperation.

Accept the Behaviour and Do Nothing

Doing nothing is an option too. Yes, your colleague complains a lot and is negative but is there really a need to confront them or influence them? This requires asking yourself what you want to achieve from this. If it’s just annoying or irritating, find ways to alter your perception or to take practical steps to avoid being so affected by it. Move desks if you can, avoid socialising with them or try a course that might help you with your tolerance levels.

By recognising that certain behaviours are learned from childhood and some people are more skilled than others in how they relate, this may help you to tolerate it.

 I have a client whose only way of communicating is to make urgent demands of my time. Everything needs to be done five minutes ago. I have tried to influence, and I have tried to confront but neither have worked. Instead, I don’t take it personally and I reassure my client that I have understood that it is time sensitive and my full attention is required. It makes him feel important and supported which is all he really wants.

None of this is easy. However, the reason you are reading this is because you are interested in your own personal development, in leading a peaceful life and in creating meaningful relationships. The first step to doing that is examining your own responses to conflict and how you communicate through it.

As always, I’d love to read your comments and thoughts!

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