Understanding toxic personalities
In order to develop an appropriate communication strategy, the first step is to identify what type of difficult personality you are dealing with. We can separate difficult personalities into seven categories : the toxic personality, the explosive personality, the complainer, the diva, the silent one, the supernice and the gossip.
The toxic personality
The word speaks for itself. Toxic people are pernicious and harmful to your well-being and have the following characteristics :
- They completely lack empathy.
- They lie in order to serve their own interests.
- They are manipulative and use others for their own needs, regardless of the impact on the other person.
- In order to keep control of others and create conflict, they often resort to a divide and conquer strategy.
- Toxic people invariably find fault with and discredit people who disagree with them.
One particular species of toxic personality is the narcissistic pervert whose behaviour is unpredictable and erratic. Narcissists are usually self-important and expect to be admired and recognized as superior. Being utterly self-absorbed, they don’t care about what other people are thinking.
Strategy for dealing with toxic people (including narcissists)
- Frame things in the sense of how it might serve them. As toxic people lack empathy, telling them that their behaviour is making other people feel bad is not going to be useful in making them change their behaviour. The best way to go about handling them is to discuss things in the sense of how it might benefit them.
- Set clear guidelines and expectations. It’s essential to be firm and not let a toxic person erode your boundaries for their own gain.
- Keep a record of decisions. As toxic people are underhand, keeping a record of all decisions taken is essential to protect yourself from them. If you discuss or agree anything with them, follow it up with written confirmation.
- Be a rôle model. Ensure you always maintain your own standards of being honest and self-composed. Even if you’re facing the most toxic person you’ve ever met, this isn’t an excuse to alter your behaviour or reactions.
- Don’t confide in a toxic person. Anything you say to a toxic person will be repeated in a negative way so think before sharing anything with them.
2. The Explosive Personality (also called the tank or sniper)
The explosive tank personality type is confrontational, pushy and exhibits aggressive behaviour. The sniper is as hostile as the tank but their approach is more underhand. They criticise others behind their backs and take any comment as an attack on them. For both the tank and sniper, the psychological motivation driving their aggression is usually fear, the need for control or an attempt to communicate the fact they feel unappreciated or ignored.
Action plan for dealing with tanks and snipers
1. Be mentally prepared
Before confronting the tank or sniper, it’s important to be mentally prepared (this applies to all typs of difficult personalities). To mentally prepare, you need to do three things :
- Carefully evaluate what you feel and think and identify the real issue you need to address. In order to grasp the real issue, it’s essential first of all to get rid of tangential factors and emotions that aren’t relevant to the discussion.
- Think about how to approach the person in question; each person has a unique set of preferences, values and mindsets.
- Manage your emotions before the confrontation. The worst thing is to confront the person when you are still in a negative emotional state. It is far better to let go of reactivity and centre yourself. Then you can respond in an assertive manner whilst also maintaining your composure.
If a confrontation with an explosive personality happens unexpectedly, the first step is to keep your cool and master your emotions. The most effective way to do this is to focus on your breathing before you say something you might later regret. If you can’t manage this, it’s wiser to walk away and come back to the issue when calm.
2. Be assertive
When you confront an explosive personality, holding position is essential. To be assertive the following techniques can help :
- Own your feelings and don’t bring others into it. Use “I” statements, such as “I feel that when you raise your voice in this manner…».
- Say the person’s name if you want to interrupt the onslaught.
- Speak quickly; usually explosive personalities think and talk quickly, so you need to be rapid and keep it short.
- Look at the person squarely in their eyes.
3. Be agile
When you respond to an irrational attack, you’ll need to show agility in how you communicate and manage the situation.
Ask the person what exactly he os she is upset about. This is to show that your interest is in communicating rather than arguing. One way to appease the situation is to agree with something but correct any over-generalisations you might hear.
Show a willingness to understand how they are feeling and look for a mutually-satisfying answer.
Avoid discussing with them about who did what and why but ask how they propose to solve the problem by setting clear goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely).
3. The complainer
Complainers wallow in their problems and have a negative influence on other people because they fail to focus on solutions. People often feel obliged to listen to complainers but the problem with listening is that you invaraibly get dragged into their negativity and waste your time.
In addition to the strategies listed above for explosive people (being mentally prepared, managing your emotions and being assertive), with a complainer you need to :
Have a solution-based approach. As a first step, ask them how they intend to fix the problem. If you let the complainer concentrate on the problem, you prolong negative emotions whereas focusing on the actions to improve the situation will bring about more positive thinking and efficacy.
Avoid discussing with a complainer who did what, when and why and how they felt about it.
4. Diva Personality
This type of personality can be identified by the fact they typically think that they deserve special treatment and accommodation. If they are not treated in the way they expect, they will react negatively and if they ever fail at anything, they will usually say it’s someone else’s fault. To manage a diva at work, it will be necessary, in addition to all the strategies set out above, to :
- Have a meeting with the diva to look over his or her job description.
- Explain organisational expectations and what is not acceptable behaviour at work.
- Make it clear to the diva that allowances aren’t appropriate to his or her role.
5. The silent personality
The silent personality might not seem to warrant being called difficult, but anyone who has come across this type at work can understand the challenges that they throw up. When you confront them, they just shut down. The motivation they have for shutting down is to avoid revealing themselves, their intentions and feelings and being blamed for something. The silence and clamming up can lead to misunderstandings and wasting time for the person imagining what the silent one is up to.
- Ask open-ended questions, not just questions they can answer yes or no to. This will get them to open up.
If they don’t answer, wait as long as possible. This means you have to be at ease with silence. Don’t be tempted to fill the silence with talk and more questions.
- When they open up, it’s important to listen carefully to them with respect as they don’t feel at ease with being straight and honest about their emotions and thoughts. You’ll need to be very agile in your communicative style and show that you are patient.
6. The “supernice” personality
Another type of difficult personality, at the other side of the spectrum from the “silent” one is the supernice personality who says “yes!” to everything but fails to deliver. We can usually identify them by their very sociable behaviour and their running around trying to please everyone. The reason they do this is that they desperately want to be liked and to be popular.
Strategy for dealing with the supernice personality
You’ll need to talk with them about the issues that might be limiting them from achieving what they are supposed to do.
Be understanding with them and try to get them to be honest about their limits.
Set realistic goals with them
Gossips at work constitute a definite category of difficult personality as the effects of their gossiping can be far-ranging. Negative gossip at work can create productivity issues, an atmosphere of distrust and generally low morale.
Strategy for dealing with gossips
The main principle is not to enter into their game of gossiping and model the behaviour that you expect to see in others.
As some employees might lack the assertiveness to tell gossips that they don’t want to participate in gossip, the permission to do so needs to be communicated at an organizational level.
- The first step is to address the gossiper at a personal level and talk about the effects of the gossiper’s behaviour on the company’s culture.
- To deal with the nefarious affects of gossip, it’s also worth meeting with the team so that everyone can understand the ramifications of negative gossip.
To conclude, there are certain principles that make it easier to handle all difficult personalities so that you get the best out of them and manage the emotional triggers they can ignite in you. Forgiveness and not taking things personally is essential. Thinking it through before reacting is also crucial for managing negative emotions. On a pragmatic note, it can be worthwhile to get other trustworthy people on board to recognise the weaknesses in your approach and get a different perspective on how to handle a difficult personality or conflict at work. And finally, the best piece of advice is to pick your battles. Not all battles are worth fighting and it’s important to think it through before reacting.