Have you ever had dealings with difficult people? Are you someone that others consider difficult or unreasonable?
I was catching up with a friend on the phone last evening. She was telling me about her new job. She’s weathered work storms before (and had experiences working with difficult people), and she knows she will work with difficult people again. But… she had forgotten the energy and diplomacy required to handle these individuals who can make life a headache for those around them.
Relating her most recent encounter with what I might term a “challenging personality,” she describes this individual as “so difficult to deal with” although he is periodically brilliant. I was curious about what we deem a difficult or unreasonable person, and I wondered what makes this person subject to that label.
What Is a “Difficult” or Unreasonable Person?
Apparently, the person my friend mentioned changes his mind frequently. His expectations of time (to complete projects) and quality (perfection, please) have little to do with reality. And he gets very irritated when he doesn’t get what he wants when he wants.
The others who work with him seem to take a deep breath and carry on. She will have to do the same, but for now, the behavior is disconcerting.
When it comes to the issue of changing his mind, some of the changes are unavoidable — a “business as usual” context. Some are a matter of creative ideas and are, in the long run, helpful. However, most often, the changes have to do with priorities and process, and they are unpredictable and Keep. On. Coming. For example, on Monday he wants Task A done using Team B, and on Tuesday he decides that Task C is more important and it should use Team H. On Thursday, he changes his mind again.
Most of the time, he’s pleasant about it. Some of the time, not so much. And the real challenge for her — especially in a new job — she can’t possibly complete these tasks, at least not very well, and she’s already dizzy from the changing priorities and the resulting inefficiency.
What adds to her discomfort is the volatile nature of his moods. When he’s under pressure, he grows short-tempered and occasionally cutting in his remarks. She tries not to take it personally — she realizes it isn’t personal, though having tried to broach the subject, her attempts have been deflected.
I can’t help but think of personal relationships that I’ve had. “Difficult people” are not purely a workplace issue; they can certainly make life challenging for us when we find we love someone who has a tendency to be unreasonable in expectations, volatile in moods and consequently, the relationship leaves us tiptoeing around important matters or walking on egg shells.
I’ve known my share of narcissistic personalities (and loved a few); changing moods (that I couldn’t predict) were a significant problem. Frequently, drama was created where it was unnecessary, mountains were created out of molehills, and raised voices were the result along with hurt feelings and damage to the relationship.
I find myself thinking of my own varying moods in my relationships. I can only imagine that they mean uncomfortable moments for anyone on the receiving end, so this conversation has me considering my own behavior and responses when I’m under pressure.
Debbie Downer? Puppy Upper? (Mood Swings!)
I’m recalling the old Saturday Night Live skit about popping pills to manage moods — Debbie Downers and Puppy Uppers — and certainly to be on the receiving end of constant criticism, negativity, anger or irritability does not make for a productive or pleasant work environment! Nor does it make for a pleasant relationship.
When I asked why she thought his moods were so unpredictable, she told me he was under a great deal of pressure at work.
As I consider the circumstances under which my own behavior is less than my personal ideal. Generally, these are elements in the equation:
- too little sleep
- I’m in pain
- I’m worried about something
- All of the above
If we were talking about my son, we could add “hungry” to the list. He can be a bear if he’s hungry, and as soon as he’s fed he’s his usual good-natured, agreeable, intelligent self.
I also think back to my marriage. Marital or relationship problems will surely take a terrible toll, and the angst and anger will seep out into the workplace. Likewise, family worries, health concerns or money worries.
Ripple Effects to Changing Your Mind
In fact, if I’m dealing with someone whose mood seems disproportionately angry or changeable, I tend to think that one of the above scenarios (family, health, money, etc.) is taking place. I try to let any anger directed my way roll off my back. (I don’t always succeed.)
More challenging for me when it comes to difficult people — in a personal or professional situation — are those occasions of changing one’s mind and /or schedule. I live each day by an extremely tight timeline. I crowd a great deal of productivity into a day, and particularly since I’m working with people in four different time zones, if a meeting is rescheduled at the last minute, the ripple effect can be painful. Delays in any number of tasks inevitably result.
As for my friend, she insists that the person she’s working with seems to be a great guy all round, and there are times that working with him is very pleasant. That makes the difficult moments all the more difficult in a way. She doesn’t know when they’re coming.
How to Handle Difficult People
Curious to see what the “experts” might say on challenging personalities with a bit of volatility — Psychology Today has this to say about “difficult people” and how to handle them. The article specifically addresses the tyrant, the ogre, the bully and the loose canon — and in any of these cases, reminds us to “learn to detach yourself emotionally from the outcome.”
Of course, if the person happens to be your boss, that’s a whole other can of worms, now isn’t it.
Here’s what Psychology Today has to say, shedding light on the difficult personality:
… whenever you are faced with hysteria, irrational thinking or out-of-control emotions, know that there is simply a child in the room – a fully-grown adult child, but a child nonetheless… See, underneath difficult personalities there is an unhealthy, undeveloped, unsatisfied ego who is acting out.
I’d say there wisdom there, though I insist there may be life events stirring up issues of the sort that I mention above — marital, money, familial or health problems.
As for more specifics on how to handle difficult people, the same article goes into a great more detail on everything from the blowhard to the dreamer to the control freak. Bottom line, the following holds true:
Remain calm no matter what… Don’t take the bait…
Other Challenging Personalities
There are other types of challenging personalities as well — the narcissist, of course, who can be very difficult to love; those who are highly critical (even if they hold themselves to equally high standards); those who are extremely intense (knowing that I’m one of them).
The reason I bring up these “personalities” — if that’s even the right word — is because they (we?) can be difficult for others to live with. And, I can well imagine that we — all of us — may be perceived as challenging to work with or live with in some respects. Our standards for ourselves are very high, our styles may vary; we have equally high expectations of those we work with and likewise, share our spaces with..
Then again, does that necessarily make us difficult people? Maybe not.
As for my friend, I was hard-pressed to offer any real world suggestions. My immediate reaction is the same as the recommendation in Psychology Today — keep calm, and if possible, try to address the situation with specifics and, again, calmly. But when someone is not open to that or is in denial, and also, when someone is in a legitimate power position, this is easier said than done.
I welcome your thoughts.
You May Also Enjoy