Dealing with Difficult People: Being Objective

Arthur Bell and Dayle M. Smith wrote “Difficult People at Work; How to Cope, How to Win” to help us work and live with people who make us crazy.  The authors call difficult people SOP’s: Sources of Pain.   They don’t try to minimize the pain you feel from difficult people; they simply try to help you manage to get work done and keep from strangling your coworkers (which this column does NOT endorse.)

Here is their four-step plan for being objective about your office SOP.

  1.  Describe difficult behavior in objective terms without ascribing a motive for the behavior.  Instead of saying “Mary took the first opportunity she saw to embarrass me in front of the boss again,” try simply describing what happened. “Mary pointed out in the staff meeting that the project was running late.”
  2. Think of the incident in terms of what a complete outsider (a space alien, if that works for you) would see and describe.  What is the most positive motive you could attribute to the behavior? “Mary is concerned that the project may be off course and wants to help us get the resources we need to succeed.” 
  3. Think about your own motivation.  What benefit is there for you in taking the worst interpretation? In this case, you are focused on Mary’s “attack” rather than the actual project timeline.  You might be wasting energy you need to focus on the project.  What might you gain by taking a generous interpretation of her actions? 
  4. If you were to take a generous view of the SOP’s actions (“Mary made this statement about the project as a prelude to offering to help”), what action would you take in response? (Thank her for her concern and ask for her help on a specific task.) What’s keeping you from making this response right now?

Admitting that you can’t know in every instance what is motivating your SOP to act leaves you with the option to act generously.  Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed to break the cycle of anger and resentment between colleagues.  And the authors point out that the SOP cycle runs in both directions; the “victim” of difficult behavior often perpetuates the pain through her own actions.  How many times have you relived a painful moment in gossiping with friends, family or coworkers?

Once you’ve decided that a coworker (or your boss) is not worthy of trust and respect, you often start looking for bad behavior, even when it’s not obvious.  Could you be using that energy more productively?

2 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult People: Being Objective

  1. We all come into contact with difficult people – those whom we would rather avoid but cannot because of professional or social pressures. Allowing these people to change your mood, attitude or outlook on life diminishes who you are.
    Difficult people can be very argumentative. Keep in mind that they usually have closed minds or are arguing just for the sake of it. There is no point in trying to argue back in an effort to win. Even if you can prove them wrong, they will just resent you more for that. What you should do is simply and clearly offer your point of view on the issue and leave it at that. The difficult person will know that you do not agree with him and that you have your own opinion, but you have avoided an argument.


  2. Thank you for this post. Seems like a worthy read.


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