image representing different emotions

Strategies for managing difficult personalities

Interacting with difficult personalities at work and in your life can leave you feeling a host of negative emotions. Difficult personalities include anyone whose behaviour somehow triggers an emotional reaction in you.

Most of us try to handle tough personalities either by confronting them head-on, even if this leads to escalating hostility, or by completely avoiding them. However a fight or flight reaction is hardly ever the most effective way of managing the situation.

Often people think that because they work or live with someone they deem difficult, controlling the relationship is impossible. They develop a defeatist attitude that goes something like : « That’s the way she is … I just have to put up with it ! ». However this is a negative thought pattern as it predisposes the person to see the difficult relationship as impossible to change. Moreover, such an attitude often translates into a holier-than-thou stance towards the difficult person, which may well exacerbate the relationship.

Putting into place what I’ll call an effective difficult-person strategy to handle such a relationship enables two positive outcomes : firstly it makes the behaviour of the button-presser easier to undestand and more predictable and secondly it ensures that you have the necessary mindset to take charge of the situation in a self-composed manner.
Any effective strategy when it comes to managing difficult personalities integrates three main elements : a perspective-taking mindset, a clear vision about your own position in the relationship (including your rôle, expectations and values) and an agile communicative style that is adapted to the type of difficult personality you are dealing with.

The main prerequisite for getting along with all types of people is cultivating a perspective-taking mindset. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), we use the metaphor of « map of the world » to help us understand that the way people act and feel is based on their perception of the world, which is filtered by their experiences, assumptions, and values.

The danger in interpreting others’ behaviour according to our own map of the world is that it invariably gives rise to distorted perceptions. Instead of reacting to someone (let’s call him Jim) who comes across as brusque and impatient by jumping to the conclusion that : « Jim is so rude ! If we don’t get things done ultra-quickly he loses it !», it’s far more constructive (for understanding Jim and not getting emotionally affected by him) to take a step back and observe Jim as if you were an ethnographer.

Be an ethnographer

Where is Jim coming from ? How are his beliefs, attitudes and perspectives constructed ? Maybe he’s always been a « hurry up ! » kind of person, the principle of not wasting time inculcated in him as a child. In his study of personality, the American transaction analyst and psychologist Taibi Kahler extrapolated five common drivers that are considered to be typical in people and can be at the root of dysfunctional behaviours (most people have one or two but some people (even though it is quite rare) have all five !):

The “Be Strong!” Driver
The “Be Perfect!” Driver
The “Please Others!” Driver
The “Hurry up!” Driver
The “Try Hard!” Driver

In Jim’s case, the « Hurry up ! » driver might have been reinforced if he lives in a culture which encourages the belief that « time is money ». The anthropologist Edward T. Hall showed in his study A Silent Language how people’s view of the world and reactions are determined by unconscious cultural patterns, which include the way of life of a people, learned behaviour and attitudes.

Looking at someone through the eyes of an ethnographer doesn’t mean that all behaviour has to be excused but it does mean that it’s important not to jump to conclusions too quickly until you understand where the person is coming from and what their perspective is.

Cultivating a perspective-taking mindest (or we could say empathy) is important as it helps you take a step back and realise that the way the difficult person reacts is more about them than you. Even if their anger is directed at you because an action of yours has triggered some negative emotion in them, the driving force behind it is usually related to their own personal story.

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you get more creative in solving problems.” Stephen Covey

Agile Communication

The third element of any effective difficult-person strategy is being agile in the way you communicate. Judith Orloff , clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says in The Ecstatsy of Surrender :

“Instead of being rigid and laying down the law, you can use a sort of communication aikido to channel troublesome employees own energies in ways that will benefit themselves, their co-workers and their company.”


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