Tips for Handling Difficult People: Part 2


Welcome back to this series on handling difficult people. As in Part 1, the guidance is below is based on Bill Eddy’s It’s All Your Fault. In Part 1, I discussed what a high conflict personality is and passed along Eddy’s first two tips: not to take personal attacks personally and not to give negative feedback even in negative situations. In this post, I will discuss four particular personality types and Eddy’s tips on how to rise above the difficulty.

Warning: I’m going to lay down some Psych 101 below. This is super fun for me because I have my undergrad degree in psychology. However, learning to cope with difficult people does not require a specialized degree. You can simply read the descriptions, which will probably remind you of someone difficult you’ve encountered. If you find yourself dealing with someone who reminds you of one of the descriptions below, try the tip and see if it works. No psychoanalysis required!

Speaking of which, I do not recommend that you use the personality types/disorders described here to provide amateur diagnoses to co-workers. (In fact, as a lawyer, I hereby strongly advise you against it!) The information below is provided as a helpful framework only. While someone might act in a particular way that reminds you of a personality disorder described below, this post plus your experience is not enough for a clinical diagnosis. We all get a little crazy sometimes, and it doesn’t mean we have personality disorders.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s get a little psycho.

Tip #3: Don’t Bend Boundaries with Borderlines

People with a borderline personality have a key fear of abandonment. (As with all of the personalities described in this post, most of the aberrant behavior traces back to a key fear.) Borderlines are often described as having boundary issues. This is the type of person who will idealize you at the start of a relationship, often coming on a bit too strong. You may recognize this in someone who wants to be your instant BFF in a way that seems too much, too soon. Be warned that while you’re the best thing ever at the start of things, any trigger of disappointment or abandonment (like having other friends or commitments) can lead to an attack. Borderlines tend to alternate between love and hate and hate, having intense mood swings. It can feel wonderful to be in the initial phase of hero worship, but the attack phase often follows once you can’t meet the unrealistic demands of companionship with this type of personality.

How can you deal with someone who exhibits this type of behavior? The simple answer is to keep your boundaries for how close this relationship can get. Example: If you just started working together this week, hold off on making plans to be the plus one at a wedding next summer or making a family visit at Thanksgiving. Set clear expectations (e.g., happy hour today is great, but I can’t commit to going every day) and remember that it is important to assert a “no” if you are pushed beyond your comfort zone. Sometimes good fences make good co-workers!

Also, to avoid the inevitable fall, don’t let yourself be put on a pedestal. It can be hard to resist someone who wants to idealize you, but being average is your best bet. Keep reminding your charmer that you are merely average. Sigh.

Tip #4: Don’t Dis the Narcissists

The key fear of a narcissist is the fear of being inferior. I have read that the incidence of narcissism is rising, so it wouldn’t be surprising if this is a type of behavior that you see in the workplace. You may even recognize a little bit of yourself in the description below (or in one of the other descriptions). Don’t fret; it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Who doesn’t worry that they aren’t good enough once in a while, right?

Narcissists are described as self-centered and self-absorbed. They often expect special or superior treatment. If you find yourself thinking a person thinks they’re better than everyone else, you might be encountering narcissism. People with this type of personality may show frequent disrespect or disdain for others. Yes, narcissists are often rude to the waiter or mailroom clerk.

An irony about narcissism, is that while the underlying fear is of inferiority, the appearance is of perceived superiority. If you are around a narcissist, he might speak at length about how great he is. You will likely be treated to lots of “hero tales” or be subjected to other demonstrations of superiority.

It is important to note that people who think this way will feel attacked by any negative feedback. It is difficult to provide non-positive feedback without triggering a fear of inferiority. Mild correction and constructive criticism that might be tolerable to others, will not be tolerated by a narcissist.

So, what can you do when dealing with a narcissist? Try sincerely complementing (but not exaggerating) a narcissist’s strengths, while resisting any urge for put-downs. Yes, this person likely thinks too highly of himself, but you aren’t going to succeed in giving him a realistic opinion of himself with a few snarky comments. Keep a middle ground so that you aren’t the source of adoration or rejection. Narcissists like to drone on about how great they are, so don’t feel like you have to listen too long. You can listen with empathy (but not adoration), and then set limits (e.g., I have to get back to my desk, the boss needs this memo done now).

It can be really helpful if you use objective reasons and external sources for responding to narcissists. Think of justifying a request for a document redraft by indicating “management would be really impressed with you if you referenced our quarterly statistics.” Perhaps you might deny a request by stating, “the union just won’t allow us to shift schedules like that.” If bad behavior (like not checking e-mail) is an issue, consider explaining the consequences from the perspective of trying to help rather than simply providing negative feedback. For example, “if you opt not to check your e-mail regularly, you might not get accurate information in real time which could make it difficult for you to make critical decisions quickly.” Ground your comments in objective facts so that what you say is less likely trigger a narcissist’s fear of inferiority.

Tip # 5: Don’t Get Hooked by Histrionics

With a histrionic, the key fear is being ignored. What do you do when you fear being ignored, you create drama to get attention. With this type of personality, everything is dramatic, and theatrical. However, it’s often not real. The emotions expressed are superficial because the events are exaggerated or fabricated. Because this somewhat imaginary drama is the preferred state, this type of person has difficulty staying on tasks or making decisions. Making things about the task would trigger a fear that the person herself would get ignored. Similarly, if decisions are made then problems are solved, resulting in loss of attention.

How can you deal with someone engaging in histrionics? When someone approaches with this level of drama, feel free to empathize without necessarily buying into the (likely exaggerated) story. You can say something like “sounds like you were really frightened” rather than “what they did to you was terrible!”

You may experience the urge to get your drama-loving compatriot to be less dramatic. Resist the urge. Even a highly-skilled therapist would have trouble achieving such an awesome result. In trying to effect a behavior change, you likely will only be seen as giving negative feedback, which will make you the subject of this person’s next theatrical rendition.

As noted earlier, the emotions elicited in this manufactured drama are not real. They are for effect and attention. So, you have the right to interrupt the tall tales without doing real emotional harm.

Also, while someone with this type of personality will resist efforts to solve problems, you can suggest small realistic tasks that work towards resolution. Don’t be disappointed if the advice isn’t followed, though. This person is making the choice of retaining attention over gaining real happiness, which is her choice.

Last, avoid the temptation to fix problems for someone who acts like this. You would exhaust yourself trying to fix things. At the end, there would only be new fabricated drama to replace what you’ve just fixed.

Tip #6: Don’t Get Conned by Antisocials

With an antisocial, the key fear is of being dominated. While we often see antisocial behavior in criminal conduct, it can occur in other contexts as well. People who behave like this exhibit a willingness to hurt and manipulate others for personal gain. There is a strong disregard for social rules and laws as well as a lack of remorse when rules are broken. They may be aggressive, risk-takers, and be comfortable in dangerous situations. In addition, they may lie even when they could be easily caught or when there is no reason to lie.

What should you do with antisocials? Pay attention to your gut feelings and be alert for unusual stories that require action on your part. Antisocials often try to get others involved in their lies, making you an unwitting pawn. Be skeptical when someone tells you someone else is an evil monster. Antisocials often engage in projection, accusing others of lying or breaking the rules, when the opposite is true. Remind yourself to maintain healthy skepticism of everything a person who behaves like this says or does.

Stay Tuned…

 As I close this post I’d ask you to take a deep breath, because that was a lot to consider. Now, stop looking at everyone wondering what kind of personality disorder they have. We are all a little crazy and a little awesome, to varying degrees. We all have our fears and triggers and very few of us are clinically bananas. My hope is that the above descriptions will ring a bell and the tips will help you when you find yourself stuck in a difficult situation.

After delving deep into some specific high conflict personality types this week, next week we can discuss general tips for what to do in order to improve working relationships with high conflict people. In the end, the goal is to get along with others so that we can continue to do great government work together.

Krista J. Roche is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katarina Hong

It was very interesting to read about different personality types! Now I am definitely thinking about how there can be so many different types in one workplace and seeing how everyone works together! Can’t wait for your next post. Thanks for sharing!