Coping with Difficult People

by Krishna on July 21, 2007

I recently heard an audio tape of the book, “Coping with Difficult People” by Robert M. Bramson. This is one book that every manager should read. In fact, probably every person should read this book. If they have to interact with difficult people, then they will learn how to manage such behavior. And if they are themselves difficult people, they may recognize themselves and try to correct their behavior, but perhaps I am being a tad optimistic there.

The author identifies seven different types of difficult behavior:

  1. Hostile-aggressive: These people use hostility as a means to get their agenda done. There are 3 variants of such people — the “Sherman Tank” who rolls over anyone in their path, the snipers who take potshots at people from behind a facade of humor and sarcasm, and finally the exploders who are normal most of the time, but erupt when they are threatened and frustrated.
  2. Complainer: These people keep complaining all the time about silly matters that normal people wouldn’t pay attention to. They poison the environment and make it miserable for everyone. I had previously covered a particularly nasty type of complainer in a previous article, “The Martyr Complex”.
  3. Clam: This type of person does not open their mouth even when asked direct questions. Normal people cannot bear silence in a conversation and hence the clam’s opponents are forced to end discussions without any resolution of outstanding problems. Clams make it impossible to establish trust and transparency in an organization.
  4. Super-agreeable: They cannot say “No” to anyone. They will agree to whatever you say and then fail to deliver. Each time, they will find some excuse to explain their behavior and with their pleasant behavior, make it difficult for you to truly confront them.
  5. Negativist: These are folks who keep throwing a wrench into the works. They oppose any initiative and exaggerate reasons for not doing something. They can destroy the growth of a company by opposing any change, regardless of the advantages.
  6. Know-it-all: This category contains experts who think they are right and bully you with facts and figures. Their fanaticism for their point of view prevents them from seeing opposing arguments and addressing real concerns. Frequently, know-it-all “experts” contain just hot air and use the behavior to seem like experts, instead of actually knowing anything.
  7. Indecisive: They cannot make a decision. They are victims of what is termed as “analysis paralysis” — they analyze everything to death and take forever (sometimes literally forever) to make a decision. When faced with a problem, such people can bring the company to a standstill while they fight with their inner demons.

Most people are not difficult. They may exhibit some difficult behavior from time to time, but it is not a pattern. In fact, the author mentions two possibilities for difficult behavior from non-difficult people. One is that a person may be genuinely blind to his or her faults and you just need to have an honest talk with them. The other case is where the behavior is the result of a negative interaction cycle, triggered by some incident.

With difficult people, fixing problems or talking to them does not help. The root causes of their behavior are deeper and sometimes impossible to change. So the only way to interact with such people is to understand and cope with the behavior. This also helps one from reacting counter-productively and worsening the situation.

The book contains really practical advice. In other books, you read advice that seems to have been written by someone cooking up theories in solitary confinement. Not this book. You really gain insight into what drives the behavior of difficult people. Remember that they have a rationale for doing what they do. Remove the fears that result in such behavior and prevent the reactions that would give an advantage to such behavior, and you can cope better.

A word about the audio format of the book. It uses different narrators to convey a sense of different real-life situations. The example interactions are intriguing and at times, hilarious. I liked the calm, analytical voice of the author as he goes about explaining the behaviors and the techniques for coping with them.


KR March 5, 2009 at 4:39 am


Can you please share with me the audio book?


Krish March 5, 2009 at 8:59 am

Sorry, KR. I had borrowed it from my public library.

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