No One Likes You…you know that right?

Help, I’m Surrounded by Jerks

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Published: January 18, 2007

CERTAIN mortals have the power to sink hearts and sour moods with lightning speed. The hysterical colleague. The meddlesome neighbor. The crazy in-law. The explosive boss. A mélange of cantankerous individuals, they are united by a single achievement: They make life miserable.


Illustration by Ryan Sanchez

You call them jerks, dolts and nitwits. Psychologists call them “difficult people.” In fact they are difficult in so many ways that they have been classified into species like the Complainer, the Whiner and the Sniper, to name but three.

But in an age when no problem goes unacknowledged or unaddressed, living with such people is no longer the only choice. Instead, an industry of books and seminars has sprung up, not to help the difficult change their maddening ways, but to help the rest of us cope with them.

Two decades ago there were only a handful of books offering advice on how to defang the dears. Today there are scores of seminars, workbooks and multimedia tools to help people co-exist with those they wish did not exist.

In the spring, Career Press is to publish “151 Quick Ideas to Deal With Difficult People” by Carrie Mason-Draffen. But numerous resources are already on the market, including the succinctly titled “Since Strangling Isn’t an Option” by Sandra A. Crowe.

Next month the Career and Professional Development Center at Duke Law School will for the first time offer a workshop called Dealing With Conflict and Difficult People. In September the negotiation program in Harvard Law School’s executive education series will present a seminar called Dealing With Difficult People and Difficult Situations. And the Graduate School, United States Department of Agriculture, which offers continuing education classes, has scheduled more than half a dozen seminars entitled Positive Approaches to Difficult People for this year.

The lessons include common sense (talk it out and put yourself in their shoes), character by character tactical road maps and something that the victims of the difficult don’t want to hear: they might be the problem.

Nan Harrison, the vice president of training resources and publication sales for CareerTrack, which every month presents more than 50 public “difficult people” seminars across the country, attributes the increased popularity of such workshops to a desire to improve workplace skills in a time of corporate downsizing and a more competitive job market. “I think the stakes have gotten higher for everyone,” she said.

Other conflict-resolution specialists suggested an unexpected reason for the increasing interest: A post-9/11 desire to make peace, even if it is merely with the wet blanket in the adjoining cubicle.

Whatever the reason, “difficult people” gurus are in demand. That is perhaps because everyone knows at least one person who can set the blood boiling. They can be found in corporate offices, on co-op boards, in church choirs and on university faculties. They are the office Cassandra who predicts doom for every project her team initiates, the intimidating boss for whom nothing is ever good enough and the unreasonable receptionist at the motor vehicles office.

“They’re very disruptive, these people,” said Brook Zelcer, a tennis pro and an English teacher in Westwood, N.J.

On the tennis court, Mr. Zelcer has been served up his share of overbearing and impatient parents. One stood out as truly difficult: The father who gave his wife play-by-plays of his daughter’s matches on his cellphone, disrupted games by shouting from the stand, encouraged his daughter to cheat during matches and drove her to tears.

Mr. Zelcer tried to control the father, but all he got was a phone call from the man insisting he loved his child. “That’s one of the reasons I quit coaching,” Mr. Zelcer said. “I couldn’t deal with these people.”

For Ann Rothman, a Manhattan real estate agent, her difficult person is a know-it-all friend who simply cannot be pleased.

“She’s a superior human being, and she comes from a superior area — Berkeley, Calif.,” Ms. Rothman said. “She has told me many times that there are only two places to get good food. One of them is Berkeley, and one of them is France. And France is only second to Berkeley.”

Difficult people are not harmless. The impact of slowing productivity or creating unhappy customers and vendors is immeasurable, unknowable and often a company’s biggest cost, said Ms. Harrison of CareerTrack, paraphrasing W. Edwards Deming, a management consultant.

Yet, some scholars say, the problem is not the difficult people themselves. It is you.

“There’s a good quote from the Talmud,” said Bruce Elvin, an associate dean and the director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Duke Law School. “ ‘We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.’ That really in my view sums this topic up.”

He and others say that rather than seeing the office curmudgeon or the post office nitpicker as the sum of their most wretched behavior, it is better to think of them as full people, even to empathize with them, if only to maintain some sense of control.

Easier said than done. But psychologists say people exhibit difficult behavior because they have a need that is not being met. Understanding that need — a colleague may be snappish, for instance, because his personal life is in turmoil — helps take the sting out of his or her actions, they say.

“Some people really are bad people,” said Mark I. Rosen, a social scientist at Brandeis and the author of “Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People,” “but I don’t think the percentage is as high as people think it is.” Instead, he said, “most people fall into the category of incompetent or oblivious.”

Several authors think it is useful to characterize infuriating people into types and prescribe ways to deal with them, as Robert M. Bramson did in 1981 in “Coping With Difficult People,” one of the first popular books on the topic. Its overarching lesson is to find a way to communicate with these people because they are not going away. Dr. Bramson lists seven difficult behavior types: Hostile-Aggressives, Complainers, Silent and Unresponsives, Super-Agreeables, Know-It-All Experts, Negativists and Indecisives.

These authors say that after categorizing the difficult behavior, you can take steps to rein it in. For example, Dr. Rick Brinkman, a seminar leader and an author of “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst,” calls one category Whiners. These people rattle off an endless loop of complaints and must be coaxed into problem solving.

He suggests listening to them and letting them vent. Chances are, he said, their complaints will be vague and exaggerated. When they begin to repeat their gripes, summarize for them what they have said. Then begin asking specific questions.

“You have to keep asking them what they think they should do,” Dr. Brinkman said, to press for resolutions. You might finally say something outrageous, like “What if we were to kill everyone in the other department?”

The literature on difficult people often focuses on the workplace, but business scholars say that neither your department nor “the other department” has a corner on the difficult people market. Rather, as Richard Freedman, the distinguished service professor of management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University, put it, “Difficult people are distributed evenly throughout society.”

“How many mother-in-law stories have you heard?” he asked. “It’s not disproportionate in the workplace, but often what it is, is that the stakes are so big for people. Career is at the center of people’s lives.”

Workplaces are competitive environments comprising individuals with disparate styles of working and communicating. With so many temperaments thrown together, every office is a powder keg.

For instance, there are those who think they are powerless, that their ideas go unheard or are dismissed and who believe they are not valued, feelings that can turn into chronically difficult behavior.

In the end, the specialists say, we cannot control other people, only our response to them. Then again, we can always let nature take its course.

“Having somebody who is really difficult can actually be good for the workplace,” said Jo-Ellen Pozner, a researcher in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “If everyone really hates this one person, it becomes the basis of social bonding for the rest of the group.”

About papillion

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