June 28, 2012
Part of a multi-part series on difficult people and situations. About half will be available online, and all are available as an e-book here. The e-book includes the entire series, along with three special essays (not available online) on “Healing the World” (framing DP’s in the context of the big picture difficult situation we all inhabit in our minds and world), Coping with Anger, and Presidential Politics as a difficult situation. Difficult People 101: The DP Challenge.
I’ve read several books on coping with DP’s, and had ample practice. I’m still working on it. That is to say, it’s not easy. On the other hand, I have gotten better over time. My favorite book on the subject is Robert Bramson’s Coping With Difficult People. Published in 1981, it far outshines other noted books in this category, in my opinion. (Arlene Uhl’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coping with Difficult People has a lot of good points as well, from a more purely psychological perspective.) Bramson’s book is “battle-tested” and derived from his consultation experience in workplaces. In combination with lessons from contemporary neuroscience (see my article on Seymour Boorstein’s work with couples in conflict, available in the e-book appendix or online), Bramson’s book can be a fantastic road map to understanding DP’s and charting strategies to cope.
Still, all those books are tedious to read and digest. Ultimately, a book won’t solve your DP problems. It takes real work in real time, commitment, flexibility and change on your part. You may ask “Why should I have to do all the work?” Well, it would be nice if the DP would wake up and realize what they’re doing, but their lead position as DP doesn’t usually allow that. It’s possible that your interaction with them could do the trick and push them to change. And change is the only constant. At the very least, understanding them will help you cope better with the DP challenge.
What’s better than tactics to deal with specific personality types is to cultivate the right attitudes, understandings, supports, and perspectives – in other words, wisdom – to cope with life’s difficulties and difficult people in general. But perhaps some tips and guidelines will help you on your path.
Step 1: “Houston, we have a problem.” Recognize that you are dealing with a difficult person. Identify the emotions and thoughts that the person is generating in you. Identify the needs you have that the DP is not meeting. Is this a reasonable need, or can you recalibrate?
Step 2: Get some distance and perspective on the situation. Try to get a birds-eye view of the situation. Very often the first thing that happens when dealing with a DP is that you feel threatened, and this shrinks you down into isolated helplessness, anger and upset. While your anger is an important signal, and it may be valuable to express your anger – sometimes this simply makes you a difficult person as well.
Step 3: Get support, and practice self-care and compassion for yourself. It’s important not to be overwhelmed and controlled by difficult emotions. If there is actual abuse involved, do what you can to be safe and protected.
Step 4: Try to understand the other person. Sometimes, labeling the behavior helps – if you can do so without stereotyping the person or assuming that they are always going to act “in character”. Bramson’s labels include the Hostile Aggressives (Sherman tanks, snipers, and exploders), Complainers, Clams (silent and unresponsive types), Super-Agreeables, Wet Blanket Negativists, Bulldozers and other Know-It-All “experts”, and Indecisive Stallers. This also requires understanding yourself better as well. Especially, understanding your “supersensitive neural network”, and your crocodile fears (see my blog post “Hot Tips for Relationship Success, Part II: The Owl and the Crocodile”, which is an extra in the e-book as well). Bramson also points out five thinking styles that can come into conflict: Synthesist, Idealist, Pragmatist, Analyst and Realist. Kirschner, in Dealing with People you Can’t Stand, points out four intentions that might cross paths: get it right, get it done, get along with others, and get appreciated. There are also more passive and more aggressive modes. We each are blends of these styles and intentions, and each has upsides and downsides. It is beyond the scope of this course to detail these, so I refer you to either the books or to your own skills of observation and introspection for understanding them.
Step 5: Generate a Right Intention to bring to your interactions with this person, as well as the thoughts you will have towards yourself. Some intentions are (a) being heard, (b) not becoming flustered or upset, (c) dealing coolly (d) not generating hatred (or even, doing your best to generate positivity from your side of the equation) (e) being kind despite difficulty (f) making it clear that abuse is not appropriate, (g) voicing your disapproval, (h) maintaining a sense of humor, and so forth. I think the best intention is to keep working to try to be your best self, despite the obstacles and DP’s in your path. This way, you’re not going to generate a false self that’s a bad fit with you. Of course, sometimes you have to put on a “game face” to deal with the DP or DS (Difficult Situation), and that’s not a bad thing. You don’t need to expose your human vulnerability in every encounter with every person. Putting on a game face might mean, for example, dealing with the situation as coolly and clinically as possible, without allowing our difficult emotions and dislikes to color and further inflame the situation. It’s up to us later to work on our difficult emotions. (See Part 4 of this series, which will be live in mid-July, or download the e-book here.)
Step 6: Expand your toolkit. Be creative, and look for ways to help you cope. Bramson’s book has good, specific advice for all the “types” mentioned above. There is also “non-violent communication”, which involves practicing non-blaming. For example, you could say, “When you do/say X, I feel frustrated.” This is a step above saying “You are frustrating!” Can you hear the difference? When you play the blame-game, the crocodiles come out to play, and you are stuck with your own brown-bag lunch of difficult emotions, which is not exactly a treat. See “Difficult People 101, Part 4: Coping with Difficult Emotions.” Your toolkit should include a certain acceptance of the situation as it is. Before you can either correct a wrong or even address it, you have to accept the situation for what it is. And not all wrongs are correctable. In an argument, my frequently used motto is “you can be right, or you can be happy.”
Step 7: Formulate a strategy, and put it into action. You can almost view this as a game, “The DP Challenge.” The goal is being successful with your intention. The closer you get to that goal, the more you can pat yourself on the back. Just remember, it takes repeated iteration to establish a new pattern, and likely you’ll need to adjust your strategy along the way as you learn. As a corollary, realize that you can only change your part of the interaction. Perhaps this will bring about a change in the other party. Sometimes, open, clear discussion about the interaction will help. If so, make that part of your strategy. Sometimes, you may have to acknowledge fault and eat a little crow. No one’s perfect – and we most often make mistakes (i.e. not being our best selves) when we’re dealing with difficult situations that we haven’t mastered yet. Sometimes, the strategy is about getting strategic distance from the DP, and again, accepting that they are who they are.
Step 8: Reward yourself, and transcend. If the DP makes you feel lousy, you have to make yourself feel good for each improved interaction. But the real jewel is your own maturation and accomplishment. If you can master the DP challenge, you will be a diplomat, a skilled negotiator, extraordinary spirit, hero and champion, and be well on your way to your own Nobel Peace Prize. Beyond the Valley of the Difficult People lies the Mountaintop of Peace, a peace that has been well-earned.
How’s that for motivation?! OK, maybe I’m over the top of the “mountain” – but you will surely feel better about yourself when you’ve mastered The DP Challenge.
As the saying goes – maybe you can’t move the mountain, but you can take a pebble each time you visit.
© 2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved. If you like this, bookmark my homepage (here http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pacific-heart), subscribe via RSS, or follow me on Twitter https://www.twitter.com/going2peace. Please sign up for my occasional e-newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. And I really appreciate your shares on Facebook, etc. Use hashtag #difficultpeople!