The Most Annoying Thing About Difficult People and What You Can Do About It
© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Let’s say you recently started job. Everything went smoothly and you felt like you were fitting in, but you noticed that other staff didn’t seem to like Mary very much. Not wanting to make waves, you brushed off your bad vibes and tried to ignore it…until the morning after a staff meeting when you got an email from Mary:
Jane - HOW DARE YOU contradict me in front of the whole staff? You have only been here a few weeks and you think you can just say you have a better idea than me? Who gave you that right? I’ll have you know that I am a valued employee and I know what I’m doing. I’ve been up all night stressing out about what you did to me. You need to let me know what you plan to do about trashing me in front of everyone, or else I’ll go talk to Mr. Boss. –Mary
Now you are staring at your screen, with your coffee stopped halfway to your lips. Thoughts are racing through your head, but the most prominent one is “Where did that come from?” You don’t think your suggestion was out of line, but you don’t want to be in trouble with Mr. Boss or get involved in an office feud. You had seen Mary’s outbursts with co-workers. She was quick to blame people for her own mistakes and she constantly belittled them. Others had complained to Mr. Boss, but he said chastising her never changed her behavior for long, she was good at her work and the company needed her skills. Now what do you do?
How Can You Change Someone’s Bad Behavior?
Talk to him/her. You can always talk to someone about an overreaction – “Wow, Mary, you’re really upset. What’s wrong? Can I do something?” Most are capable of discussing it, looking inward, thinking about each perspective and making changes when they feel it is appropriate. But – and this is a big one – not everyone can do that. For those people, sustained change is nearly impossible so just forgetaboudit!
Why They Won’t Get It
Some people have a lifetime of feeling like they are the one being attacked. We call these High-Conflict People (HCPs). Simple things set them off - like a suggestion - and they can totally lose it if you have the audacity to disagree with them! HCPs cannot see that what they do creates conflict and is self-defeating. Being a professional victim and unable to consider that they could be wrong; they must blame other people. While you can rightfully claim that belief to be horsepucky, keep in mind that it’s real to them and they believe the only way to be OK is to defend themselves by aggressively going on the offense. For the short purpose of this blog, suffice it to say that much of an HCP’s bad behavior is unconscious, so trying to use logic to convince them to change their ways (which requires reflection and conscious thought) is doomed to fail and will only leave you more frustrated.
So, What Do You Do About It?
You’ve heard this before; you can’t change someone else but you can change how you respond. Once you accept that the reactions you get from an HCP will probably never change, you can turn your attention to learning new skills to cope with the person when they blow up at you the next time. Since your ultimate goal is to be less annoyed and frustrated yourself, keep these steps in mind to help you achieve that goal.
Give The HCP Your EAR
EAR means to give the upset person your Empathy, Attention and Respect, which is the last thing on earth you want to do when you can clearly see that if they would just change, everything would be alright (see forgetaboudit, above). So the next time you are targeted with blame, take a breath and discard all the things you feel like saying and try something like this, instead: “I’m sorry to see that you are upset. Let’s talk about what we can do to avoid that happening again.” It’s important not to apologize for making someone upset. “I didn’t mean to upset you” will reinforce the HCPs idea that you did something wrong and give them energy to blast you further, while being sorry they are upset at all is simple empathy. Likewise, offering to discuss it shows attention to and respect for their dilemma without your taking responsibility for it. In addition, the task of discussing matters focuses on future actions, helps the upset person let go of the current hostile attitude toward you and move into a frame of mind geared more toward problem solving. Remember to avoid criticizing their actions or emotions (see forgetaboudit, above) and hold fast to your goal of ending the hostilities so that YOU can feel better and, hopefully, end creepy emails on the subject. You can learn more on EAR Statements™ in our online webinar.
Remember Your Goal
With luck, Mary might let go of the issue once you hit her with an EAR statement since she will feel more respected and acknowledged; “Oh never mind, I was just having a bad day.” It’d be super-cool if that happens, but don’t count on it and don’t push to discuss it because you are still annoyed or need some reassurance that it won’t happen again (see forgetaboudit, above). What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say, and ending the discussion calmly is the best outcome for both of you.
Be BIFF When You Discuss The Matter
If you do have a discussion with Mary, remember your goal and focus on making BIFF statements® that help you get back in control. BIFF means Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. If you landed on this blog first, you can go back to earlier blogs on the technique and read a related article. The whole website is dedicated to helping you learn this, so feel free to peruse it. BIFF is a simple 4-step method to help you end angry communications when you have been targeted. It does take practice, however, especially if you have to do it verbally instead of in an email or text, so you can contact us with questions or check out our personal coaching services, too.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.