Posted by: Christine Donovan | May 30, 2009

Handling the “Truly Difficult” Person

OK – here it is. Today I’m going to talk about truly difficult people – not the slightly irritating or the justifiably annoying …but those who make our lives generally miserable.

I’ve prefaced today’s post with descriptions of the other two levels of difficult people, just to offer a point of reference. There is a big difference between irritating, annoying, and truly difficult.

Besides, if we were to confront everybody who annoyed us in a given day, we’d probably end up in jail… and justifiably so.  Anybody that confrontational is a bonafide sociopath… and I doubt if any sociopaths are reading this blog. Although I could be wrong.

Anyway, today I’m going to talk about the truly difficult people who make our life, our job, our community stressful, even unbearable.  These guys elevate our blood pressure and affect our sense of normalcy.  They keep us angry, frustrated, tense.  We lose sleep over the situations they put us in; our other relationships are affected by the distraction caused by the difficult person.  Being around them makes us feel less effective, less competent, less appreciated.

If we’re passive-aggressive (and many, many people have those tendencies) we plot how to bring them down – indirectly of course.  God forbid we’d ever confront directly.

But, as a wise person once said – Resentment is like drinking a cup of poison and waiting for your enemy to die.

It eats away at us like a poison, while the offender goes about his business “unaware” of the turmoil he’s caused.

Let me tell you a story about a lesson I learned:

A few years ago, I was working with a peer (another manager) who had, what I would call a dominating personality. She probably wasn’t even aware of it, but she seemed to be more interested in other peoples’ projects, issues, problems, than her own. I know she thought she was being helpful, but I wasn’t the only one who was often put off by her overbearing persona.

I sometimes sat next to her in staff meetings (not by choice; but because she often managed to find a seat next to me), where she spread her stuff everywhere on the conference table.  She’d pick up somebody else’s pen and use it, and throw her file folders on top of somebody else’s (mine!) paperwork.  (I’m surprised that she didn’t take a sip out of my coffee cup.)

It was as though she didn’t know where she ended and others began – no boundaries whatsoever.

During one meeting, she leaned over me, looked at my notes, and with pen in hand reached across and corrected MY notes, saying “This is the wrong date.”  It was all I could do not to haul off and hit her – -which wouldn’t have been a very good idea obviously.  OK… I never would have done that … but I was pretty angry.

In my passive-aggressive way, I smiled and said, “Thanks, Hildegard… but these notes are from a meeting I was in yesterday. It has nothing to do with today’s meeting.”  Smirk.

“Oh,” she said. “Just trying to help!”

And the behavior continued in a hundred other ways.  My staff members often mentioned that Hildegard stopped by, not only to offer her advice, but to reprioritize projects I’d assigned to them.  My boss revealed that, on several occasions she had given him suggestions for my assignments, and he laughed at her “brazenness.”

In meetings, she frequently interrupted, chimed in, and questioned issues that she knew nothing about and had nothing to do with.  I really didn’t need another manager criticizing and dissecting projects that I’d spent months fighting for.  Grrrrrr.

So I lost sleep over it; I gave serious thought to how to get her to shut up; I envisioned every possible scenario from confronting her publicly to going over her head.

But even in my immaturity, naiveté, and helplessness in those days, I knew none of those was the answer.

It took a calm, light-hearted coworker to teach me how to handle it.

One day I was sitting in my office having an important meeting with another manager whom I’ll call Harvey.  Harvey and I had a noon deadline to submit a recommendation for a budgetary item and were trying desperately to get it done in time.  We only had about an hour.

We had barely started our meeting when Hildegard came barreling in (no knock; no “excuse me”), pulled up a chair and said… “So, what’s the meeting about?”

I’m telling you, I bit my tongue and sat on my hands to keep myself from throwing my stapler at her (I do sound “violent” don’t I?  Ha…)  I was so angry I could spit… and I’m usually a lady.

Just when I was about to explode from the months of pent-up repression and frustration, Harvey spoke up with a big smile on his face…

“Hildegard,” he said warmly. “Will you please get your butt out of here?  We have a deadline and you’re not helping. I’ll tell you what – if you leave NOW I’ll take you to lunch later.”

She laughed and said… “Wow… I did it again! Yeah I know I sometimes butt in when I shouldn’t… but I’ll take you up on lunch.  See you in your office at 12:30!” And she was gone.

Harvey laughed again and said, “I’m trying to teach her to tone down that energy a bit.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but sometimes Hildegard can be a bit pushy!”  He chortled and we went back to work.

Wow.  What a dumb blonde I’d been.

I had worried, anguished, sweated bullets, and suffered from chronic insomnia because of Hildegard. I’d spent months gearing myself up for a big confrontation, and then watched Harvey dispel the problem in 30 seconds.

Wow… WOW!

I had learned the power of light-hearted sincerity combined with a non-threatening attitude.  Hildegard quickly responded to his humor and his desire to HELP and SUPPORT her, not to confront her.

Wow.  I used to take myself so seriously (still do sometimes), and this was an important lesson in communications and conflict resolution.

Dale Carnegie said that none of us sees ourselves as others do, which is why we are so defensive when we are given “constructive criticism.”  It’s human nature to defend our character and confront those who challenge our sense of self.  Carnegie mentioned (in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”) that the famous mobster Al Capone didn’t understand why people saw him as a bad guy; after all he was quite philanthropic and gave back to his community.

A wise person said, “We judge others by their behaviors, but ourselves by our intentions.” Think about that for a few minutes.

I’ll continue the theme tomorrow…

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