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On the Job

Disarming difficult personalities on the job

By Connie Merritt, R.N., P.H.N.

Adapted from the author’s book Too Busy for Your Own Good: Get More Done in Less Time–with Even More Energy” (McGraw-Hill)

Dealing with difficult people can feel like a fulltime job sometimes. They can slow you down, upset your equilibrium and drain your energy.
Sorry to say, there’s no single approach that will be successful with every quirky personality. But you can counter some of the most common troublesome behavior. Here are some suggestions.

With exploders, tantrum throwers and yellers

Resist the instinct to push back. Emotions are already too high. Instead:

Adopt a neutral stance. Picture an inflated balloon that you just let go…fsssuuu all around the room. Do not interrupt or touch the person.

Rise slowly if you’re seated. Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare like a zombie. Slow your breathing. Cross your arms or make a “stop sign” gesture, if you’re feeling strong.

Snap them out of it. Speak the sweetest word they know: their own name. Don’t say “calm down,” “wait a minute” or “stop.” Instead, try one of the following:

Ask for a solution: “Al, I can see this is a big problem to you. What can we do together to help solve it? What would you like me to do?” Ask: “Is there anything else?”

Ask the person to leave: Say: “I feel overwhelmed right now. I would like you to come back when you’re less angry.”

Leave: “I’m going to leave now, and I’ll come back when we can talk about this in a more productive way.”

With unreliables

They promise but they don’t deliver. Here’s how to keep them on the up-and-up.

Be realistic. Say: “I know this kind of commitment is hard for most people. Are you sure you can make it?”

Find the middle ground. “I know that we agreed on two weeks, but I’d be OK with three weeks if that would help you.”

Ask for a recap. Ask the person to explain his or her understanding of the important facts.

Tie the commitment to a sense of honor. “Do I have your word on that? I know I can count on you.” If necessary, put it in writing–and both parties sign.

With chronic critics

Snide comments can be deflating. But when you call people on it, they often say, “Oh, I was just kidding.” Critics also use dramatic signs, eye rolls and thumbs-down gestures. Try these responses:

Try to get an alternative to the sniping. Ask: “Do you have anything to add?”

Smoke the person out. “That sounded like an insult. Did you mean it that way?” Or “The ‘stupidest idea’…what exactly makes you to say that?”

Expose covert gestures. “What did you mean by that?”

Seek group consensus of the criticism. “Does anyone else see it that way?” If the group agrees, ask, “Can you be more specific?”

Ask for more criticism. “Anything else?”

With ”no people” and negative analysts

First, distinguish between the two. Negative analysts are contingency planners who can be very helpful. “No people” on the other hand describe problems and make complaints without offering solutions. Here are some tips for dealing with “no people:”

Be positive. Acknowledge what the person said: “You could be right.” But don’t get sucked into his or her negativity. Say, “That has not been my experience.”

Don’t argue. Chances are, the person tends to be the “glass half empty” type, and you’re not going to change that orientation.

Ask for solutions. “What do you think would work here?”

Examine the negativity. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Try to reprogram. Meet with the person privately. Try: “You may not be aware of how negative you’ve become. And I don’t think this is who you really are.” Often, when people are made aware that they have slipped into being a “no person,” they take it upon themselves to improve.

With indecisives and stallers

First cousins to the “no people.” They research everything to death and want a perfect result. Try this:

Give fewer alternatives. Suggest your own preference.

Give a specific deadline, if you can. “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow afternoon at 3, I’ll go ahead with my choice.”

Make the decision with the person’s help. Start with a pros-and-cons list: “Let’s look at all sides. What else might we consider?” Try to move ahead: “It seems like there are more reasons to go forward. I’ll draw up the paperwork and return it for your approval.”

Key questions to ask. Jim Grigsby, author of Don’t Tick Off the Gators, suggests this crucial step after you deal with a difficult person. Ask yourself:

Did I cause or contribute to the problem by not knowing enough about the other person?

Did I create the environment that allowed it the situation to flourish by ignoring it or hoping it would go away?

Was the cause of the problem a lack of communication or bad information?

How did I respond to each event or stage? Did I know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em?

Can this situation be prevented in the future? What can I learn from this experience?

* * *

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