Handling Difficult People And Situations

Wherever we work, difficult people are a fact of life and they can often seem to come at us from every angle.  It could be a difficult colleague, boss or service user.  How can we cope?  People don’t change easily and therefore a convoluted action plan of trying to make people to change their ways seems impossible.

Communication skills and people management are now considered to be the key skills for the future, and if you aspire to moving into management, these will be at the top of the shopping list.  The Social Care sector is not alone in this, being adept at communicating and enabling others to complete work and meet targets is one of the top skills required in business today – and being able to not only handle difficult people but also get the best from them is paramount. 

Hardly surprising as we are in a ‘people business’ and our main way of achieving targets is through people; technology is a mere sideline in the service sector.  People are not like machines, relationships need nurturing and even when you think you have it right, people constantly surprise. 

There is no one way to manage and there are no magic wands – so is it about coping then?  If so then a ‘tool box’ of useful techniques to enable us to simply get the job done could be very useful.

Some simple rules to start with

1. Don’t expect people to suddenly change and see the error of their ways – they don’t and they won’t.  It is no good putting up with the situation, hoping that the other person will suddenly realise how unfair they are being.  You have to challenge the individual if you want to deter difficult behaviour.  Whilst you are unchallenging, they will take this as ascension, and feel free to continue.

2. How many times have clients asked me to, ‘please make “them” behave differently.’  Hard as it may seem, you can’t change other people’s behaviour, only they can do that.  However, you can change:

  •  your own behaviour
  • the way you react and feel about situations.

So what can you do then?  Let’s start by trying to understand the problem. Why are other people so difficult?

Why do people act like this and seem to get pleasure from disrupting our day?  Probably because there are many positive pay offs.  For example it:

  1. makes them feel powerful (they can shout you down)
  2. enforces their view that being difficult is acceptable (has anyone ever challenged them otherwise?)
  3. yields a positive result.

Does it work?  Of course does because for them, being difficult, has been so effective.  It becomes a learned habit.  For them to stop using it, this habit has to cease being effective.

Dealing with the aggressors

Of all difficult people I am asked to speak about, aggressors are usually feared the most, so let’s concentrate on them in this feature.  You can always recognise them because people are terrified when they walk in the room.  They often:

  • scream, shout, and bang their fists
  • manage to get out of doing work because people dare not approach them
  • regularly fail to deliver on projects
  • always blame others.

There are generally three main types of aggressor: tanks, swipers and exploders. 

Tanks use their physical presence to intimidate you, pointing and shouting.  They like it when you are sitting so that they may stand and tower over you, giving them the physical advantage. 

Swipers on the other hand will make sarcastic comments, often in front of others, as if they are joking whilst simultaneously putting you down (‘You’re wearing that outfit again, old clothes are so comfortable, aren’t they?’) 

Exploders appear as such nice calm people, until their trigger is pulled.  A chance remark, action, or observation can send them skywards in a torrent of anger and abuse, leaving you wondering what you said or did to warrant so much aggression.

Dealing with aggressive people is not easy because they need to be confronted and informed that their behaviour is not acceptable to you, and will not induce action.  When confronting them:

  • use a calm, controlled voice without any counter-threats.  Tell them that their tone is unacceptable and that you will only discuss the situation when the have calmed down.
  • your body language needs to also reflect this approach, stand firmly in front of them and look them directly in the eye. 
  • stay calm, don’t give them any reason to exacerbate the argument or storm out.

Although aggressors are often feared, their behaviour needs to be challenged if you wish to maintain your self esteem, and restore equilibrium at work.  Interestingly, once they see that you are willing confront their bad behaviour (even in front of everyone else), the less they tend to use it.  Interestingly, aggressors often respect more highly those who stand up to them.

Modelling good behaviour

I wish I had a pound for every time someone tells me that the other person is at fault.  Sometimes it is, but not always.  In some cases it is our own behaviour that causes their reactions, which in turn may be interpreted as ‘bad behaviour.’ 

We may not feel comfortable with this concept, but people react to the behaviour they are presented with – essentially behaviour breeds behaviour. 

Think about it, are you your own worst enemy?  Could it be that you are being treated disrespectfully because you do not exhibit the kind of behaviour that commands respect?  If you act like a doormat, people will wipe their feet on you!

Modelling good behaviour has two positive aspects:

  • It demonstrates that you are assertive in your interactions with others.  Even if the interaction becomes unpleasant, your self esteem will remain intact as you can be self-assured that you took the right approach in that situation.
  • You are outwardly expressing how you like to be treated, and this will deter others from deviating from this.

Some ways of modelling your behaviour include listening and body language techniques.

Effective listening

Effective listening is a very important skill to cultivate when dealing with difficult people.  Quite often the person being difficult is trying to tell you something, and they will get more agitated if you appear not to be listening to them, so try to:

  • stay calm – don’t respond in kind
  • stay with the listening, even if the person becomes abusive.  Don’t switch off.
  • demonstrate that you are actively listening by maintaining good eye contact and nodding as appropriate.  If you are on the phone say, “Yes, I see” (or a similar affirmation) at regular intervals.
  • show empathy – this does not mean agreeing with them, but using statements such as “I can see how this situation could have made you upset”.
  • try to turn the conversation into positive action.  Use positive language to demonstrate that you want to help them if at all possible.

Quite often people only want to express their emotions and may be looking for an audience.  If this is the case, take them to a discreet area and allow them five minutes for this – then press them to move towards positive action.

Check your body language

Essentially we are all animals and read a great deal subliminally from physical stance and mannerisms. Use assertive body language to work for you.  Stand up tall and look people in the eye when they speak to you.  Assertive people have less problem with difficult people and interruptions than non-assertive people.

Getting on with colleagues in a challenging environment defines working in social care.  However, if you encounter people who are difficult, speak in the first instance with your manager.  They will be able to support you through supervision and work with you on a number of techniques you could try.  You may not be able to bring the world around to your way of thinking, but there are a range of ‘coping tools’ you can use to improve your relationships and communicate more effectively in a whole range of situations.

Karen Mannering is a personal development specialist and psychologist.  She has written several books including Dealing with Difficult People, part of the CMI Instant Manager series, recently released by Hodder Education. www.karenmannering.co.uk