The High Art of Handling Problem People
Dealing with difficult people is a special skill—and an increasingly necessary one.
By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 01, 2012 - last reviewed on July 02, 2012
The walk-in medical clinic was about to close for the day when Susan Biali got a call from one of her longtime patients. Could the doctor please hang in a bit longer? The caller was feeling very ill and needed to see her immediately. An exhausted Biali extended her already burdensome day and waited for the patient to arrive. Some time later, the woman sauntered in; she was perfectly fine. She just needed a prescription refill.
"She totally lied to me," the Vancouver doctor recalls. ...view middle of the document...
No, it's not you. It's them. And it's the emotional equivalent of being mowed down by a hit-and-run driver.
It doesn't take a sociopath; anyone can be difficult in a heartbeat. "To a great extent, the problem is in the eye of the beholder," says Topeka, Kansas, psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of the now-classic Dance ofAnger and the just-released Relationship Rules. "We all come into relationships with hot-button issues from our own past. For one person what's difficult might be dealing with someone who's judgmental. For another it might be a person who treats you as if you're invisible." That said, she adds that there are certain qualities that make people persistently hard to handle—hair-trigger defensiveness that obliterates the ability to listen, meanness, and a sense of worthlessness that leads people to bulk up self-esteem by putting down others, just to name a few.
Experience motivates most of us to avoid or minimize interacting with such people. But sometimes that problem person is a sibling, a boss, a coworker. Even your mother. And managing the relationship by distancing yourself or cutting it off altogether is impossible or undesirable. The goal, in such cases, is to prepare in advance for an encounter, knowing it will take a special effort to hold onto your own sense of self, and to stay calm.
Although it is typically disturbing to be in the presence of such people, remaining composed in the face of unreasonableness helps you figure out exactly what species of difficulty you're dealing with. Therein lies your advantage. It allows you to predict the specific emotional trap being set for you, which is your passport to getting your own power back.
In the Hothouse at Home vs. Tough at Work
In dealing with a difficult person, the setting is everything.
Handling difficult people at work is not quite the same as coping with problem people in family life. The goal is to get the work done, and that requires great caution and considerable strategizing. "It's not like amarriage, where the dailiness of living will allow you to repair a lot of interactions gone wrong," Lerner observes.
In a marriage, she says, it's often advisable to exit a conversation. Of course, there are a variety of ways to do that. A common one is to scream "I hate you" and slam a door behind you. Better, she advises, to say something like: "I love you, I want to be here for you, I want to hear your criticisms, but I cannot listen when you throw them at me rat-a-tat-tat. I need you to approach me with respect. So let's set up a 15-minute meeting after breakfast and start over." The difference is clarifying a loving position versus escalating things further.
Telltale signs: High, sometimes explosive, reactivity. Frequently disagreeable. Cynical. Mistrustful. Does not like to be wrong.
Where you'll find them: Corner offices. The Internet, often under the cloak of anonymity.
Call in the wild: "I am going to come and burn the f**king house down."