Coping With Problem People

Reprinted with Permisson. By Kerry L. Johnson, Ph.D.

John was about to give up. He had had it with his manager's explosions. It wasn't bad enough that he felt like a child, but when his manager raised his voice and demoralized him, it went too far. When his boss carried on with one of his tirades, John usually was left shaking in his boots. Not only was the guy intensely intimidating but he made most people either angry or fearful, often at the same time.

Beth was tired of the backbiting. She was slowly being eaten alive by a Realtor client who liked nothing better than to snipe at her. Once the sniper even heckled her during Beth's mortgage product presentation to the realty office. Beth frequently heard rumors of what the sniper had said about her to others. But whenever she confronted her it was quickly denied. Beth never knew when she would be attacked next.

Dan's top originator was the prize of the company. He made more money than all the rest of the producers combined. It was just too bad that he seemed so miserable. The sales star was one of the most immature people in the company. When he felt under pressure, he would blow up like a volcano. No confidence was too sacred, he would use any verbal weapon, no matter how hurtful, to attack his victim if he felt provoked.

Do these descriptions sound at all familiar to you? Problem people exist everywhere— loan officers, underwriters, referral sources, and customers. While most of us share a decorum of respect and consideration for other people, there are those who for some reason, can't seem to control themselves in inflicting emotional pain on others. Stanford psychological researcher Bob Bramson calls the worst of these verbal abusers "hostile aggressives." In reality, we all know or have to deal with problem people on a daily basis. But how you cope with these relationship killers may well determine how much you get accomplished in not only your job, but also in your personal life.

The Bulldozer

These people are frequently seen as intimidating. They walk into a room and make people shudder. Their goal is to get their own way at any cost. But their bad behavior seems to be successful in the short run. It is rarely long-term. They are very focused in their obsession to win every argument. In fact, they seem good in storing up facts to use in their argumentative attacks. This gives them immense power in manipulating others. They have some of the facts and use them to twist others to do their bidding. They have a need to validate their own decisions and seek advice often to justify rather than to discover the truth.

Coping With Bulldozers

One of the hardest things to do with a bulldozer is to realize that the problem is not with you but with them. They come on so strongly that they scare and intimidate. But an equally important thing to keep in mind is to not let them run over you. You must stand up to them. Here are a couple of tips to remember when dealing with bulldozers.

  1. Get them immediately to sit down. It's usually harder to maintain anger when one is sitting. In many cases, that's all it takes. Since the bulldozer is often an emotional bully, if you confront them head on, they may realize quickly that the altercation is becoming out of hand.

  2. Ask them questions about their problem. Listen carefully without accusing them of bad behavior during their tantrum. An accusation may only serve to inflame them even more. If you are able to draw them into a conversation, it may diffuse their outburst into a constructive discussion.

  3. Look them directly in the eye and respond assertively without emotion instead of aggressively. If they interrupt you (which they will) cut them off by saying, "Just a moment, you'll get your turn." But don't let them continue to bulldoze you.

The Volcano

In Hawaii, volcanoes have a reputation for erupting destructively without notice. The same is true of human volcanoes. They also erupt without provocation but seem most explosive under pressure. Like bulldozers, they are hostile-aggressive in nature but blow up out of control. Their mode of operation is to first blame a problem on another and then explode. The episode is usually caused by the volcano's low level of self-esteem and an overall feeling of being threatened.

Coping With Volcanoes

Like the bulldozers, you need to stand up to them. You can't let them dump vile and vicious venom while you cowardly stand by. But if you look the volcano in the eye and show no weakness, you'll be able to at least save yourself some grief. Volcanoes sometimes act like sharks going in for the kill if they smell weakness. Here's what you can do.

  1. Let them talk until they run down. Many marriage counselors report that if you listen well when your spouse is upset, problems will often solve themselves. Let them run down much like a wind-up toy loses its energy.

  2. Tell them that you wish to hear what they are upset about but not in this way. On the telephone interrupt them by saying, "Hang on, I want to get a pen and paper to jot some notes down as you talk."

  3. Get as many facts as possible about their concerns. Focus on the tangible details as a way to deflect the emotion.

The Sniper

Snipers are the sort who talk about you behind your back. They make little jokes or quip about your weaknesses. Since they shoot from the cover of innocent humor, others don't see the viciousness of their hostility. Snipers rob you of your self-esteem like other hostile aggressives. But unlike the loud and abusive sort, they do it surreptitiously. Since there is so much peer pressure to take a joke in good humor, snipers often get away with embarrassing comments without any fear of reprisal. They rarely attack openly due to their perceived loss of cover. They'd rather attack you under the camouflage of wit and humor.

Coping With Snipers

  1. Avoid responding to comments made anonymously. If a sniper attacks you in front of others using wit as a typical camouflage, ignore them. They are hoping you will laugh at yourself so they can snipe at you in good fun again.

  2. Confront the sniper. Get them alone and ask about their comments. Don't attack them in front of groups. Ask them if their nasty comments were meant as a dig. They are very likely to say, "What's the matter? Can't you take a little joke?" Your response to this should be, "Sure I can take a joke. But I sensed a little animosity behind your comments. Is that the way you meant to say it?" If they say yes, you have a chance to discover what the real irritation is behind the comment. It's always difficult to get through to these hostile aggressive characters. They tend to make all of our lives difficult with everything from demoralizing comments to lawsuits. At the very best, working with these kinds of people causes us to fail to look forward to our jobs.

Handling a problem person takes a lot of skill but most importantly, courage. One of the central coping techniques is to stand up to these people. Most of us avoid conflict so much that we ignore or walk away from these types. When problem people aren't confronted, they tend to repeat this bad behavior because it works for them. If you are firm and assertive and use the techniques I have outlined, you may not be able to avoid problem people, but you'll sure be able to defuse them by coping rather than fighting or withdrawing.


Dr. Kerry Johnson is a frequent speaker at Financial Services conferences around the world on topics like How to Read Your Clients Mind, Marketing to the Affluent, and, Peak Performance: How to Increase Your Business By 70% in 8 Weeks. In fact his His personal coaching company, Peak Performance Coaching guarantees a 70% increase in business in 8 weeks. He is also the author of 6 books including "Mastering the Game, and his newest book Willpower: The Secrets of Self Discipline." To receive a free subscription to his monthly newsletter, "The Winning Edge- Online, subscribe on his web site at www.KerryJohnson.com or call 800-883-8787.

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