Chapter 1: Who are these difficult people?

WELCOME to How to Deal With Difficult People. This book is for anyone involved with others – at work or at home – who wants to achieve more fruitful outcomes in a whole range of relationships. It will help you successfully settle those difficult interactions that just won’t resolve themselves.

You can learn to handle apparently impossible situations where people just won’t co-operate: ranting bosses, ineffectual co-workers, over-demanding customers, rude or aggressive patients or members of the public who act in unpredictable ways. And it isn’t limited to the workplace; if you ever find yourself struggling in your personal relationships there is help here too. This book tells you how to identify different types of difficult people, recognise clues to the patterns in their behaviour, and most importantly – what to do about them.

You will also be given the opportunity to understand how to prepare yourself, so that you become more effective more often in your relationships.

You know those situations where somebody else always seems to get the upper hand? Perhaps they intimidate you or brush aside your well-prepared remarks. It may be they simply seem so superior and arrogant that you are sure they know much more than you, so you don’t speak up. Or you may have to deal with one of the silent types, people who just don’t react when you are trying to get agreement from them on important issues.

At work our energy and enthusiasm are sapped by people who persistently use difficult behaviour. I have regularly seen entire projects jeopardised because of the behaviour of one person. I have met staff who have changed jobs because they felt unable to improve a relationship with one colleague and I have known many effective and competent managers who have found themselves powerless in the face of the disruptive actions of one or two employees. On the home front we all know of marriages ending in divorce because someone’s ‘difficult behaviour’ was beyond the pale. It is now common to hear of children who demand rather than ask and parents giving in to them because they think it is the easiest course, and schools where there are problems with the attitude of pupils, staff or parents.

Perhaps you have to deal with more than one difficult person. Those of us who work with the public regularly have to face overbearing, demanding, sarcastic or generally rude individuals. Receptionists and call centre staff, for example, are involved in interactions lasting just a few minutes, but they may be subjected to a constant stream of damaging abuse.

Difficult people can be a serious health hazard to individuals and to organisations. They can undermine our best efforts and ruin the quality of our lives. These types of people also cause untold stress in organisations. It is estimated that, in any given situation, there is about a 10 per cent chance of coming up against a difficult person. This means that if you are dealing with the public, every tenth person you meet could become difficult, quite apart from the people you have to deal with inside the organisation such as your boss, co-workers and colleagues. If you work in the public sector, at a telephone call centre or in the complaints department of any sizeable organisation, the chances are that the rate is far higher. As one overstretched and stressed-out doctor’s receptionist told me, ‘Some days I’m lucky if one in ten of the people I have to deal with are not difficult!’

This makes for increasing tension and lost productivity in the workplace, costing employers millions of pounds. It results in stress and misery for employees and a poorer service for customers and service users. And it doesn’t stop there. Workers bring that stress home with them, perhaps taking it out on their nearest and dearest; drinking too much, sleeping badly or suffering from other stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, lack of motivation or worse.

The reverse happens too. How many people have you known where a stressful personal relationship interfered with their work? This is not to say that we should not be supportive when someone we work with suffers some tragedy or personal difficulty. There are limits, though, to what is acceptable and fitting in the workplace setting. If a personal problem intrudes to a point where it disrupts the work routine on a regular basis, something needs to be done. Since there is a well-proven link between poor relationships, ill-health and an increased likelihood of emotional disturbance such as depression, it could be that someone who is not working as well as they could or who is, for example, constantly demanding attention, actually needs professional help.

The behaviour, not the person

It is important at this stage to illustrate just what I am talking about when I use the term ‘difficult people’. When we launched our first series of seminars entitled ‘How to Deal with Difficult People’ some years ago, a well-meaning manager rang our office to complain (having first let us know that she wasn’t being difficult). She pointed out that ‘there is no such thing as a difficult person’, and went on to say that she had ‘disallowed her staff to attend’. Any organisation, she explained, that identified people in this way was in error, since anyone who knew anything about the subject understood that we should be talking about difficult behaviour, rather than identifying people as though they are somehow faulty.
And of course, she was quite right.

Nevertheless, faced with difficult behaviour most of us have trouble adopting this generous view, so I use the terms ‘difficult people’ and ‘difficult behaviour’ interchangeably. There is a fuller explanation in the terminology section (see page 00).
It also has to be said that we are all somebody’s difficult person, sometimes. We can all use obstinacy, moodiness, shouting, criticism, avoidance or any one of dozens of other behaviours from time to time to protect our interests, get our own way or because we are in a bad mood.

If we can keep this in mind it can help to counter the natural tendency many of us have of judging others too quickly. It also makes it easier for us to see things from the other person’s point of view; it facilitates how we communicate with them. This is not to say we have to agree with them or accept what they say, but as any competent negotiator knows, it is important to respect a person’s right to hold their views (which are, after all, important to them). Frequently, we tend towards finding fault as though making the other person wrong will strengthen our own position. This is the easier option as it requires no great intellectual effort. As one writer on the subject, Robert Bolton, says, ‘It is easy to criticise ideas even of an intellectual giant as long as one never addresses the complex problems (they) are trying to understand.’ If we can control our natural tendency to criticise we will remain more in control of the situation. This is particularly true where our patience and compassion are being tested to their limits.

The difficult people I am talking about here are the people who are persistently awkward, intimidating, demanding, obstreperous or in any other way constantly disagreeable to a point where they manage to stop us getting on with things the way we would like or the way our job demands. Frequently this comes under the heading of what I would call ‘unacceptable behaviour’. There is a line between what is acceptable and what is not that some people just don’t respect. It does not matter whether this is deliberate (they have found it works for them so they use it) or incidental (a result of their emotional state or poor social skills). Once the behaviour is persistent and troublesome it entails risks to other staff, the organisation and even the service users.

But the situation may not be so clear-cut. People need not be overtly ‘difficult’ to cause trouble. You may have to deal with someone who always agrees with you, for example, or who seems to be completely on your side, but who then fails to deliver. Equally, some people use low-key tactics like spreading title-tattle or making snide remarks to undermine colleagues. Whatever the approach they use and the context in which it occurs, difficult people behave in such a way that they start to dominate our thoughts and affect the way we think and act. In extreme cases (and I have known plenty) they can make our lives a misery.

Defining difficult people

So, I am referring here to the types of people who persistently use unacceptable behaviour to get their way. I will leave aside for now the complicated issue of judging what is ‘unacceptable’, because obviously the limits to what each of us considers ‘acceptable’ behaviour will vary according to personal viewpoint and circumstance; many social workers, for example, have told me that they will tolerate a certain amount of swearing from a client, but that when the same words are used by their manager (it happens, apparently) they find it unacceptable.

It is in the nature of being human to behave in ways that can irritate others, obstruct progress, get ourselves noticed for the wrong reasons and even end relationships. It is precisely the richness of our range of responses that makes human beings so interesting and adaptable, and it is only to be expected that something as complex and complicated as human interaction would produce as many disasters as it does delights. And for the most part we accept this.

Sometimes, though, we are far too accepting of the negative side of the equation. This may be because we fear reprisals, especially when the offender is someone above us in the hierarchy. But it may also be because we just slide into accepting something we don’t like out of politeness or complacency. Many of us can identify a time when we have done this. At first ‘it didn’t seem worth bothering about’ or we ‘wanted to avoid a confrontation’, only to find that the longer we put up with it, the more we suffer!
And so it is that we regularly tolerate difficult behaviour. We are generally able to put up with demeaning, disrespectful or destructive habits in others for a short time, but when that behaviour becomes persistent, our coping skills start to fail us. Yet so often, rather than sort it out with the difficult person, we put up with it.

Dealing with a dead weight

Frequently, during my seminars and workshops, I have met people who will complain loud and long about the conduct of a colleague, friend or family member. Generally this brings supportive remarks and suggestions from the rest of the group. Paradoxically the complainant will often then respond by playing down their gripes with remarks like ‘it’s really not that important’ or ‘they probably didn’t mean it’. They continually make excuses for the other person. While tolerance and understanding are qualities to be proud of, they can backfire when we allow ourselves to become a doormat. Often, we’ll make all sorts of excuses rather than tackle behaviour we don’t like. This is when the trouble starts. Pretty soon, the situation has grown to a point where we find ourselves dealing with the dead weight of a difficult person.
In real life

Natasha was explaining to the group just how difficult it was to work with her long-time colleague Anne. “The problem is”, she explained, “everyone in the organisation has rejected her, I seem to be the only friend she has left. It is not that I like working with her, in fact I hate it, she ties up so much of my time with her problems, I can’t get on with my work. And she seems less and less able to do hers. I just feel sorry for her and haven’t the heart to reject her like everyone else has.”
Natasha told her story during a workshop on Relationships at Work. Suddenly, the facilitator, Jacques Salomé, steps up to her and places his right foot just above her left.
‘Tell me,” he asks, “how would you react if I constantly trod on your toes?”
“Why, I’d move of course!”
“How would you do that?”
Natalie steps back. “Like this.”
“Exactly, but suppose I followed you, in fact, how about if I hung on to you like this?’ Salomé steps up to Natasha’s place, puts both arms around her neck, then he lets his legs collapse under him. Natasha struggles to hold his weight with the man draped around her shoulders. She starts to giggle.
“You OK about that?” he asks.
Natasha is not.
“Why don’t you drop me then?”
Natasha, now laughing, replies, “You might hurt yourself.”
“And you, is this hurting you?”
“Of course, get off please.”
“Oh but I can’t, you see I have all these problems. I need someone to lean on.”
Natasha, now visibly niggled, still struggling against the weight of the trainer, says, “Jacques, please.”
Salomé stands up and places a reassuring hand on Natasha’s shoulder.
“You see, if I tread on your toes, you know exactly where your threshold of tolerance is. But with your colleague Anne, things aren’t so clear, are they?”
“From now on they will be”, replies Natasha.

Natasha’s example illustrates how supportiveness and forbearance can be misplaced. Her colleague Anne is constantly demanding her time to talk about her problems or tying up Natasha’s energies in some way. Natasha naturally wants to be supportive of Anne, and probably started out believing that if she devoted a little time to her, listening and supporting her, it would help Anne in an ‘hour of need’. The trouble is that the ‘hour’ can turn into several months or even years. Anne just does not seem to be operating according to the same set of values as Natasha. Her behaviour is almost certainly not a deliberate strategy to get sympathy, it has become part of her repertoire of coping skills which she has learned to trot out whenever she feels in need. It is even possible that she has been using it for so long she knows no other way of having a conversation. Whatever the cause, Natasha’s beliefs about helping and supporting a colleague are conflicting with her professionalism and her wish to be allowed to get on with her job unhindered. Her kindness, far from helping Anne, is unwittingly encouraging her behaviour and may even be preventing Anne from moving on in her own life by developing different ways of responding to her difficulties.

People can impose on our good nature in other ways. For example, you may have had to put up with someone who shouts at you. They act as though they have never learned that a conversation can be a balanced, two-way exchange of views. Every time you raise a topic they respond by raising their voice in a way that stops you in your tracks. Of course, you know you could fight back, but why bother, anything for a quiet life.

Leaving the handbrake on

I liken taxing or unreasonable behaviour among colleagues to ‘driving round town with the handbrake on’. What I mean by this is that many people are enthusiastic about their jobs and come in to work in the morning with the intention of doing a good day’s work. This is particularly true in the public sector where I spend so much of my time. Staff here are frequently motivated by a sense of altruism or a wish to help others. It is a source of constant frustration to them when, before getting out to deal with their client group or patients, they have to unravel or in some other way deal with the difficult behaviour of a colleague. Instead of being able to direct all their energies where they are most needed – ie to their clients or service users – they find that they are ‘driving round town with the handbrake on’.

If you’ve ever tried this, deliberately or by accident, you will know that a vehicle with the handbrake on doesn’t move along too well; a lot of energy gets burnt up in the back wheels and both the vehicle and the engine suffer. Eventually the damage caused will make expensive maintenance necessary and possibly some parts will have to be replaced. One can easily see the parallels in organisations.

When staff have their valuable energy taken up with repeated interpersonal clashes – quite apart from the cost in time and effort – it raises levels of frustration and reduces motivation and morale. UK organisations waste hundreds of millions of pounds each year in lost productivity, avoidable absenteeism and staff turnover. A large part of this is down to emotional and personal problems arising from behaviour in the workplace.

Estimates of the costs vary, but all agree that they are astronomic. A conservative estimate published in the Sunday Times in 2001 put the figure at £10.7 billion, but research carried out by the Industrial Society sets the figure a lot higher. ‘Stress and low morale are the hidden costs of the UK’s £13 billion absenteeism bill’ was the headline to its February 2000 press release. To put this in perspective, we are losing the equivalent of 25 per cent of the annual budget for the NHS in England or twice its annual bill for prescriptions.

Relationship maintenance

People value the quality of their relationships at work and all relationships need maintenance. Most species, including our own, spend a substantial part of their time doing just that. The primates most closely related to us can happily while away up to 20 per cent of their day grooming each other.

Though this may appear to be an idle pastime with no real purpose, it is in fact a way of building and maintaining alliances and bonds on which the quality of their life in the group depends (quite literally a case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’). Human beings are also a group species and while we no longer go to the extreme of picking lice off each other for extended periods (though until 300 years ago this was still a cosy practice on long winter evenings in some rural areas of Europe), we symbolically groom each other in other ways. At least, we do if we are wise.

For a species to have survived and evolved to the point where we now dominate the planet, we humans had to develop an incredible range of skills for sizing people up, and for forming and above all maintaining relationships with them. Grooming was one of the practices we used – just like our primate cousins today – to keep our alliances going. Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool, postulates that we developed language as a way of establishing and servicing our relationships. ‘Could it be,’ he asks, ‘that language evolved as a kind of vocal grooming to allow us to bond with ever larger groups than was possible using the conventional primate mechanism of physical grooming?’

So, small talk has a purpose. Those ‘watercooler chats’ and other brief exchanges we have with our colleagues are actually an essential ritual aimed at preserving social harmony and effectiveness. Gossip is actually of tremendous importance and a little time spent each day talking to those around us about nothing in particular might go a long way.
Unfortunately, the modern workplace leaves little time for such seemingly unproductive pastimes as talking to each other, and where they do the culture of the organisation often expects measurable outcomes for its indulgence. For example, organised away-days and team-building efforts are intended to ‘improve team functioning’ or ‘bond the workforce’. Increased workloads and a more hectic pace of life at work often mean that our professional relationships suffer. We may only begin to notice the effect of a colleague’s difficult behaviour after we have been putting up with it for some time, perhaps because, like Natasha, we will have been making excuses for the other person. Maybe we did not want to make a fuss or simply did not know how to correct what was becoming a problem for us.

Inclusion gives us a social value so our initial reaction when faced with difficult behaviour is to put up with it or excuse it to avoid rocking the boat. This is specially the case with relationships at work where regular contact with our colleagues is obligatory. Speaking up about behaviour we find difficult brings with it the threat of exclusion, reprisal and the risk of being judged ‘difficult’ ourselves.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.