Waiting for the Bomb to Go Off
Elements of a Difficult Personality and How to Soothe the Beast
We’ve all dealt with a “difficult personality.” This is the person we are afraid to run into on the elevator at work, the family member who never fails to offend, or the jerk at the furniture store who refuses to refund your money on a delivery that was never made.
The difficult personality is a confounding beast. It comes in all types. For every egomaniac, passive-aggressive cretin and negative Nellie, there are a dozen other types of difficult personalities ready to pounce. They stalk your offices and lie in wait at social events, looking for easy prey. They feast on others’ vulnerabilities and use their limited but determined wiles to gain the upper hand in conflict.
Having worked in the Entertainment Industry for fifteen years, I witnessed a lot of terrible behavior. I’ve been in the workplace with screamers, passive-aggressive players, deflectors and egotistical maniacs. I’ve seen bosses throw trash cans at weary assistants, drunk actors trash hotel rooms, and executives behaving badly at parties. Even more insidious are the difficult personalities who quietly but steadily derail their own best intentions and the intentions of those around them without even realizing what they are doing. I’ve seen people doing this without understanding that they are trashing their career, ruining their families, or making enemies out of friends until it is too late.
One of my favorite stories about a “difficult personality” revolves around a very successful and wealthy CEO. This person ran a company with over 200 employees who worked day and night to make the company successful. Like most companies, some of the upper-level executive employees were paid very handsomely, but most of the employees earned fairly modest five-figure salaries and struggled to make ends meet. All of the employees relied heavily on traditional annual Christmas bonuses to make their holiday expenses easier to handle and to ease them into the New Year. The bonuses represented a significant portion of their annual salaries and had become such a tradition, they were seen as automatic.
After a particularly good year, the CEO came to the company holiday party and announced that instead of their annual Christmas bonuses, he was giving everyone a Cartier watch. He proudly made this announcement with the added comment, “after all, I wouldn’t have been able to buy my third vacation home in Hawaii without all of your hard work.” The executive was so ignorant, insensitive, and selfish, he simply could not understand why his employees practically revolted. This so-called generous replacement gift effectively represented a 10% salary decrease for most of the employees. Worse, he refused to change his mind about reinstating the bonuses. His egotistical response was that his employees were lucky to get bonuses at all, and that if they didn’t like the situation they could quit. He conversely offered that the employees could go sell the watches for cash if they were so irresponsible with their personal budgets. This was not a new attitude. The CEO was known for his belittling comments, explosive temper, and argumentative nature. This CEO was the very definition of “difficult.”
Thankfully, six of the company’s top executives intervened. They personally donated their still intact annual bonuses to distribute amongst the other employees and prevented a huge employee walkout. The CEO’s faulty thinking led him to believe that he was doing something nice for his employees, but he failed to look past his self-congratulating ego about his own largesse to really see how his decision was negatively affecting his entire company. His company’s productivity faltered, and he lost the respect of several of his high-level executives, all of whom left the company within the next five years.
The moral of the story is that difficult personalities often don’t understand that the consequences of their actions may be a result of their own bad behavior or faulty thinking. To this day, the CEO blames others’ shortcomings for his company’s loss of earnings. He simply cannot understand that his own actions created the negative situation his company now faces.
While the entertainment industry is rife with difficult personalities, it doesn’t possess a monopoly on them. In fact, every facet of life can contain a difficult personality. Chances are that if someone is difficult at work, they are equally difficult in their personal lives. The judgmental family member might also be a confrontational co-worker. One is not mutually exclusive of the other, especially because most personality flaws develop over a lifetime of innate and learned behavior.
The challenge for dispute resolution professionals is that we must manage, placate, and confront these people with finesse and empathy in order to resolve conflict. We must train ourselves to communicate effectively, allowing for the personality flaws of the difficult individual while separating our own horror at their terrible behavior. We do this to better understand what is driving the difficult personality’s behavior so we can get to the root of the problem in order to resolve the conflict.
Most truly difficult personalities have some unifying elements that define their bad behavior. Arrogance, ignorance, selfishness, low self-esteem, fear, coldness, immaturity, insensitivity, negativity, interpersonal difficulties, faulty thinking, and pettiness are some of the most common elements.1 Many difficult personalities are bossy, negative thinkers who consider themselves superior to others. Other difficult personalities overcome their insecurities by belittling others to make themselves seem more important.
When your job is to deal with an ignorant jerk, what do you do? How do you connect with a difficult personality and stay grounded? How do you soothe the beast? Unfortunately, when dealing with any personality issue, the answer must be, “it depends.” It depends on what type of difficult personality you’re dealing with and what that particular individual needs from you to get past their own issues so they can discuss underlying interests.
An in-depth understanding of the traits that make up a difficult personality can be helpful. Below are ten common traits many difficult personalities share:
1. Ego. The most common trait of the difficult personality is an overly-healthy sense of ego. The Oxford Dictionary defines ego as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” Everyone has some sense of ego, but those with difficult personalities have a sense of self-importance that often reflects a belief that they are God’s gift to the world.
2. Insecurity. It sounds oxymoronic, but even those with huge egos have an innate sense of insecurity. In fact, an overinflated sense of self may come directly from strong insecurities about everything from looks and personality to work, family, or friends. People with high levels of insecurity are also often extremely negative. Negativity allows someone to mask or deflect their own shortcomings by projecting them onto others. As such, they often belittle other people to make themselves feel better.
3. Control. Many difficult personalities have control issues, but not all control issues manifest in the same way. One difficult personality might have a need to control while another may be out of control. In the business world, this represents the micromanager versus the careless manager. Both personalities are difficult and both lead to conflict, but in very different ways. Lack of control results in fear, which then leads to anxiety, so control can also refer to the level of anxiety an individual exhibits. Anxious people can be extremely frustrating and tedious to deal with because their fears are often not rational.
4. Recognition. Many difficult personalities have a need for recognition. They often want to be recognized for work, ideas, and accomplishments that may not be in line with reality, and they will often take credit for someone else’s work. Further, many exhibit a need to always be “right,” arguing so they always have the last word.
5. Confrontation. Some difficult personalities thrive on confrontation while others are deathly afraid of it. What makes direct confronters easier to deal with is the ability to prepare for the inevitable fight. More insidious and hurtful; however, are the passive-aggressive personalities who have an underlying need to be liked. They try to please, but are unable to live up to their words, resulting in nasty quips that manifest in unexpected and often inappropriate ways.
6. Expectation. Most difficult personalities have extremely high expectations of themselves and others. They do not suffer fools lightly and expect excellence in even the most mundane tasks. Someone who doesn’t manage expectations well has a difficult time accepting legitimate excuses for anything less than perfection. They tend to be extremely judgmental and rigid.
7. Work Ethic. Along with high expectations often comes an excellent work ethic, or conversely, a faulty belief that one possesses an excellent work ethic, which may be contrary to reality. Many difficult personalities are indeed hard workers who become frustrated when others fail to live up to their own potential, but the difference here is like the difference between a critic and a coach. The line separating the two lies in how each individual communicates. The coach will encourage and teach while the difficult personality will criticize and belittle.
8. Pressure. The pressures of the modern world can be unbearable at times. Between 24/7 work schedules, a lack of work/life balance and the constant barrage of media invading our lives, people are simply unable to unwind. Moreover, as more and more families become dependent upon dual-incomes, many find that the pressure to be everything to everyone is simply untenable. Many of us are unable to separate our work issues from our family issues, and each individual problem can feel like everything is piling on. The difference between the average person and the difficult personality is that the latter is unable to deal with these pressures in rational, non-reactive ways, leading to scapegoating and blaming where one situation has nothing to do with the other.
9. Strong Values. Many people hold strong values and stick to their beliefs even when their arguments have no basis in reality or logic. This happens in religious disputes, but these types of strong value-based arguments often drive other types of conflict as well. When someone holds strong values and argues them persuasively, relationships can be forged even if the parties agree to disagree on certain issues. This is based on mutual respect and an ability to recognize common underlying interests. Unfortunately, the difficult personality often mistakenly characterizes arguments as value-based rather than logic-based simply because their initial position is an emotional reaction to the conflict. This doesn’t necessarily indicate faulty thinking, but their need to be right often backs the difficult personality into a corner they are not likely to voluntarily relinquish. To do so would cause them to lose face; so instead, they use value-based arguments as a cover. Because their arguments make little sense, once deeply probed, the difficult personality will often shut down and refuse to communicate which appears obstinate and unreasonable.
10. Mental Health Issues. Of course, some difficult personalities have mental health issues. They may have potential psychological problems or issues with drug or alcohol abuse. It is the purview of the psychology professional to discuss these matters, but dispute resolution professionals without a psychology background need to be aware of such possibilities, how their manifestations affect conflict, and how conflict can be resolved.
Now that we are armed with the ability to recognize the difficult personality, how can we soothe the beast when it rears its ugly head? The single most important skill a dispute resolution professional must possess is the ability to remain calm while in the eye of the storm. The goal is to pacify the difficult personality in order to allow them to communicate in a healthy and productive manner. How can this possibly be accomplished when the subject is screaming at you?
1. Keep Calm! Losing your temper with a difficult personality will only escalate the conflict. It is of paramount importance that you do not take the anger personally. Sit down. Take a deep breath. Steel yourself. Take your own ego and hurt out of the equation. Use a calm tone of voice and don’t defend yourself. If you need to “go to the balcony,” do it.2 Soothe their ego by using genuine empathy. Ask them how you can do better. Deflect or ignore their personal attacks on you. Gain understanding through active listening and by putting yourself in their shoes. After all, the very definition of a difficult personality is often colored by one’s perceptions and points of view. Examine your own point of view. You may discover the source of the conflict revolves around a misunderstanding born from differing perspectives.
2. Help the difficult personality feel safe and secure. They may be reacting to perceived threats to their ego, position, or goals, so bring them into a physical environment where they will feel more comfortable. For some, this means discussing difficult issues behind a big, protective desk while the dispute resolution professional sits in a short, uncomfortable chair on the other side. For others, food or exercise may put the difficult personality at ease. Whatever it takes to make them feel safe, do it! Once you’re there, make them feel like you are working as a team and allow them to vent. Don’t criticize, roll your eyes, or make faces. Maintain direct eye contact. If sitting, lean forward. Keep your body position open to indicate you are there to hear them out. Make supportive comments and allow them to feel like you are on their side.
3. Work to learn all of the underlying facts. Ask the “who, what, when, where and why” questions. Do not allow the difficult personality to deflect or ignore the “why’s.” This is important because the difficult personality will often try to avoid answering “why” due to their insecurities and need to control; however, their answers will inform how you continue with the entire interaction. Push them, but do it gently and with genuine concern. Play upon the difficult personality’s ego by asking for their help so you can better understand what is driving the conflict. Don’t assume anything. Ask follow-up questions that gently probe their thought process without being confrontational. Demonstrate you are being sensitive to their needs. Don’t interrupt, but tactfully keep the conversation on track. Let them do the talking while keeping a mental checklist of questions that their comments elicit and use those questions to guide the subject’s thinking into a more constructive realm. This helps build mutual respect and rapport that allows for an open flow of communication.
4. Guide the subject towards rational thinking by asking questions that gently probe their logic. To do this without provoking the beast, act as a sounding board rather than a lecturer. The goal is to appear non-judgmental by withholding criticism and allowing for venting. Keep your own responses short and to the point, and give the difficult personality the power in the room by asking for their ideas. Allow them to express emotion, frustration, and fear. Ask open questions that will allow the difficult personality to find the “right” answer on their own. Don’t provoke anger and certainly refrain from making your own personal comments, which will only cloud the conflict, rather than clarify it.
5. Be sure to help the difficult individual define their values. Often, they discover that their values are not that different from their opposition’s, even though the expression of those values may be vastly different. To accomplish this, there are two steps. First, you have already asked questions that revolve around logic. If you are challenging that logic, do so in a way that expresses your own ignorance and not your fundamental disagreement with the subject’s ideals. At this point, the subject should feel comfortable enough with you to openly discuss the emotional elements of the conflict. This is the second step. Emotion defines value and gets to underlying, deep-seated interests that may be driving the conflict in the first place. Be sure not to confuse the answer to the above question of “why” with the subject’s values. These are not the same things. “Why” explains how the conflict came to be. “Values” define someone’s true interests, which can lead to creative and mutually beneficial resolutions not previously explored. With an understanding of the underlying interests, a dispute resolution professional has broken through the wall that is likely preventing resolution. In doing so, the difficult personality has been placated, but more important, a foundation of trust from which to work has been built.
The best advice when dealing with a difficult personality is “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Because soothing a difficult personality takes a great deal of patience, tenacity, and finesse, check your ego at the door. Use all your powers of empathy and logic to break through the barriers that difficult personalities erect and put yourself in their shoes. Most important, don’t take it personally. Following these steps will help facilitate productive and honest conversations with even the most vicious beasts.
If you need help with a difficult personality, please give me a call.
1 McGrath, Helen, PhD, and Hazel Edwards, MEd, DIFFICULT PERSONALITIES: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO MANAGING HURTFUL BEHAVIOR OF OTHERS (AND MAYBE YOUR OWN) (2010).
2 Ury, William, GETTING PAST NO: NEGOTIATING IN DIFFICULT SITUATIONS (1993).