Dealing with Difficult People

How do you deal with difficult, irrational, or abusive people, especially those in positions of authority who have some degree of control over your life?

I’ve never met a totally rational human being. Our ability to store and process information is far too imperfect for that. But our emotions are a shortcut. The book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman describes people diagnosed with alexithemia, the condition whereby people either don’t feel emotions or are completely out of touch with their emotions. You’d think such people would be hyper-rational, but they aren’t. They can’t even function in society. They have no emotional context for deciding what’s important to them, so earning a dime is just as important as earning a million dollars. They’ll spend hours on tasks others would consider trivialities, like deciding what time to schedule a dentist appointment. Our emotions are a logical shortcut — we “feel” the difference between the relevant and the irrelevant.

On to dealing with difficult or irrational people…

I certainly haven’t been sheltered from such people, even though I’ve only been an “employee” for a total of six months of my life when I was in college. They’re everywhere! I’ve still had to deal with irrational/abusive people in business deals, landlords, etc. But such people rarely get to me because of how I deal with them on two levels:

1) There was a story about the Buddha where a verbally abusive man came to see him and starting hurling insults. But the Buddha just sat there calmly. Finally the man asked the Buddha why he failed to respond to the insults and abuse. The Buddha replied, “If someone offers you a gift, and you decline to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” If someone is irrational, abusive, etc., you can mentally decline to accept “the gift.” Let that person keep their anger and insanity, and don’t let it affect you. This takes practice, but there are many mental imagery techniques that can help. I usually visualize the anger as a red energy that bounces off me or passes through me and simply returns to the source. This is a message to my subconscious mind to acknowledge that the anger belongs completely to the other person. So this part tackles the other person’s effect on my emotional state. And it works very well. I never lose my cool unless I’m doing it on purpose for some specific reason. Sometimes it’s better to respond to an angry person with some shouting of your own and then slowly bring them back down. I also mentally acknowledge that it’s probably a lack of love and happiness in their life that causes them to behave as they do.

2) Now that you’ve gotten your emotions handled, you still have to deal with the practicalities of this person and their effect on your life. Sometimes it’s enough to just manage your emotions, but other times that isn’t enough — you need to take action to address the situation. In this case I use my logic and intelligence to decide what to do, depending on the specifics of the situation. It’s like playing a game of chess — if I do this, then how will this person react? Even with irrational and hurtful people, their behavior is often predictable to some degree if you know a little about them. Human behavior is purposeful, but it can be hard to figure out the other person’s intentions. Use what you do know to anticipate their responses to various possible actions you might take. Your information may be imperfect, but do the best you can. Think of it as an exercise in risk management. Here are some possible actions:

  • Remove the person from your life. This is a bit extreme, but sometimes it’s the best option. If your landlord is really bad, consider moving. If your boss or coworkers are terrible, leave. Many years ago I once told a friend I could no longer continue to have him in my life because he was deeply into software piracy, and I just didn’t want that kind of influence in my life.
  • Confront the person about his/her behavior directly. Raise your standards for what you’re willing to accept in your life, and enforce them. This strategy is my personal favorite, but some people aren’t comfortable with it. The advantage of this approach is that you stop playing games, and you find out exactly where you stand with the other person. This is what I’d use if I had a difficult boss or coworker — I’d just lay everything out on the table with that person, explain why certain things were no longer tolerable for me, and detail what I wanted to see happen. Now the other person may decline your “demands,” but then at least you know where you stand and can decide based on that. Paint a line, and if the other person crosses it, you now know the abuse is willful.
  • Use behavioral conditioning on the other person. I know of a team that did this with their verbally abusive boss. They conditioned their boss to be encouraging and supportive. Going to their boss and confronting him just didn’t work, so they got together and worked out a behavioral conditioning strategy. They stopped rewarding his negative behavior and began rewarding his positive behavior. Whenever he was abusive, he would either be ignored, or his employee(s) would say, “Are you intending to manipulate me through verbal abuse?” They would constantly point out to their boss when he was being abusive. But whenever he was the least bit encouraging, like if he said, “good work” or “thank you,” they’d thank him for his kindness and encouragement. Within a few weeks, this boss had completely turned around. I wrote a previous entry on behavioral conditioning techniques, so there are other ways to gently change another person. But this assumes you have enough leverage on the person.
  • Get leverage, and use that leverage to force action. This can be risky, but sometimes it’s the best option. You might need to see if you can get another person fired if they really are hurting productivity. In software companies it isn’t uncommon for a team to petition management to fire a weak member that’s holding them back. I use this a lot myself when dealing with difficult people in business in cases of willful misconduct. You contact everyone who does business with that person to let them know what’s happening. And if it’s a big enough deal, throw in local govt reps and members of the press too. You might think of this as the whistleblower strategy.
  • Let it go. Sometimes this is the best option if someone injures you in some way. Just let it go and move on.

There’s a deeper issue here too… Are the reasons you’re allowing this difficult person to remain in your life valid? For example, if you make money a higher priority than quality of life, then how can you complain when you get the former but sacrifice the latter?

I think people often have a hard time making quality of life a high enough priority — we’re taught to just suck it up and tolerate it if we have a difficult boss (and then die of a heart attack or stroke). The one time I was an employee, I didn’t particularly like my boss; he behaved like a jerk and didn’t seem too bright either. But I also figured that if I was a lifelong employee, I might have other bosses like this too, and it wouldn’t always be convenient to quit. So I decided not to be an employee. Then when I worked with retail game publishers, I encountered dishonesty and incompetence, and this was so common that I felt it would be hard to run that kind of business and not have to deal with such people, so I decided not to work with those people either. When I switched to doing game development independently, I loved the people and really enjoyed it, so I stuck with that for years. I chose not to base my career around working with difficult people. And now that I’m getting into speaking, I’m having a great time at that too, and I get along great with the people, so I’m happy on this path too.

It seems that different kinds of careers attract different kinds of people, and some industries seem to attract more jerks than others. You don’t have to work in a slaughterhouse (which reportedly has the highest turnover rate for any kind of job), but you don’t have to work in a tech sweathouse either. You might think that dealing with a difficult boss is a “have to,” but it isn’t. You can’t control everything, but in most cases you have enough control over your life to avoid having to deal with such people. Just because everyone else around you tolerates an abusive boss doesn’t mean you have to.

Edit 8/29/05 – There’s a follow-up post to this one here:
Dealing With Difficult Relatives