By Frank J. Rich
OK, hands up out there! How many of you have chosen not to take action with a difficult person when you knew it was needed? How many have reacted to another in an angry or non-constructive way? You with your head down—why isn’t your hand up?
Everyone has done both of these things at one time or another. There’s no shame in it. However, if we consistently repeat the same mistakes over and over and end up paying the cost by becoming a victim, we’ve chosen the path to unfulfillment.
So, why do we do it? Why do we choose to be victims? And why is it important to know why we make this choice? Simply, if we don’t know what it is about “difficult people” that causes us to make a poor decision, it isn’t likely we’ll be able to grow out of the “victim” disorder. If we don’t change, we are going to be a consistent victim.
There are a number of reasons why people make bad decisions, avoid taking action, or take inappropriate action. Most have to do with avoidance, while the last is biological and has to do with our initial gut reaction to difficult people and our feelings of threat. Let’s take a look.
If you lack self-awareness (i.e. you don’t know what your own reactions mean and why they occur), you are not likely to have success with difficult people. Not coincidentally, the first step in learning to deal with difficult people is to examine oneself.
It’s important that you look at yourself to identify which of the reasons apply to you. When you are aware of the reasons you choose to be a victim, you will be better prepared to make better, more rational decisions.
An impediment to awareness is “denial.” Have you ever said to yourself, “I can’t believe he said that?” It is likely that you have. What we are saying in those words is that our expectation of another does not match well with their actual behavior. One reason we fail to take action with difficult people is we don’t expect them to be difficult. We are caught “off guard.” Most normal people don’t go through life looking for trouble. But when it appears, unexpectedly, such as in outrageous outbursts, we have a tendency to freeze like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. We’re at a loss for words, almost disbelieving what is plainly in sight. We are incredulous over it.
Not only can we freeze up in such moments, but some difficult behavior is so outlandish that we remain stunned by it well after the fact, or we deny it or excuse it as an aberration.
Believe it! Even the best of people do difficult, hurtful, and unpleasant things to others. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. If you do, it may just get worse. We are, each of us, capable of the worst behavior imaginable. What keeps us from it varies—societal pressure, the law, moral suasion, inherent goodness, a positive life experience that recommends it, etc. Whatever works to bring each individual under self-control must be as apparent and available as a hammer to drive a nail.
Are you in denial? If so, recognize that people do hurtful, difficult things and that they are indeed real and are happening. To deny what is happening only serves to make the situation worse.
Even when we recognize that someone is being nasty, difficult or unpleasant, we may be reluctant to act because we fear getting involved. Or perhaps, you know that difficult person who argues about everything, and you are tired of him. We think, “If I say something, it’s just going to make matters worse.”
At times, you’d be right. There are times when making something of another’s rage is not only inconvenient, but also dangerous. Consider road rage. If we stop (or speed up) to confront another’s poor behavior on the road we might find ourselves on the receiving end of a weapon in the hands of a fool. The larger picture renders the issue trivial in most road rage incidents, so we go on our way hoping the angry “other” will cool down before hurting someone.
There has to be a happy medium here. We don’t want to jump on every little thing, but we must be prepared to confront real issues of poor behavior. We deserve better, and “help” is what the miscreant needs most. However, if we choose to continually ignore such abuse, we paint ourselves as victims.
Recognize that dealing with a difficult person in a constructive way doesn’t have to mean getting into an argument or a confrontation. Managers must be willing to make people accountable, and not only to agreed upon goals. We work with people, and their willingness and cooperation is necessary to achievement. We need to work at not allowing our dread of confrontation to keep us from taking control of difficult situations.
Another reason people tend to wait too long to intervene with difficult people has to do with not wanting to come across as the “heavy.” This promotes a poor self-image, something we humans avoid like the plague. This is particularly true of managers who are sensitive to the need to use power sparingly in today’s workplace.
Get over it! We get paid to manage—so manage. Whether it’s someone not doing a good job or interfering with the work of others, or someone polluting the work environment, managers, indeed all stakeholders, have a responsibility to co-workers to act when necessary. You are, in effect, charged with ensuring the welfare of those in your care.
They’ll Do It
There is a tendency in organizations to think that the really tough problems ought to be solved by “them.” It is the great lie in all societies—commercial and familial. We expect it of our politicians, our teachers, our pastors, our bosses, and our parents. Perhaps, this is why 85% of families and 70% of organizations are deemed dysfunctional. If we allow one employee to make life difficult for another, there’s a fair chance that the “victim” will come to blame us, even though we aren’t directly involved. As managers and leaders, we are ultimately responsible for results—at all levels of participation.
Just as “intervening” need not bring about confrontation, stepping in need not make us the bad guys. There is something of value at stake for all involved; reasonable people can come quickly to an understanding of it.
Fight or Flight
The final underlying reason for mishandling difficult situations is the “fight or flight” phenomenon. It’s biological—all animals have it. It works this way; when we are threatened, our bodies react by sending hormones and neurological messages to prepare it to either run away (escape or take flight), or to stand and fight.
It’s these chemical changes in our bodies that cause things like sweating, elevated heart rate, or even shaking during or after perceived danger.
Unfortunately, those same chemical changes, while allowing us to make a quick escape, or a fight of it, also cause quick and destructive verbal responses. So, there’s actually a biological reason why you might speak or react too quickly when dealing with a difficult person.
Fortunately, we can choose not to be slaves to the “flight or flight” thing. We can learn to control ourselves, and even to react less aggressively when in difficult situations. Perhaps, what is most helpful is to accept that the term “difficult people” describes us all, at times. Try first to defend that person’s position, then consider what to do about his behavior. The exercise may give you the empathy necessary to clearing most misunderstandings, and the path to appropriate behavioral modifications.