You know how everyone says obnoxious, arrogant, know-it-all people are really just insecure? I think that really is true for most difficult people. Some type of insecurity or fear drives many people who are perfectionists, control freaks, know-it-alls, negative, or hostile. Chances are, these fears and insecurities are on a subconscious level and so the behaviors are probably in their blind spot. In other words, don’t expect them to have an epiphany about how miserable they’re making everyone around them.
You may not have a choice as to whether you have to interact with this person but you may be able to minimize interaction with that person. Regardless, to the degree you have to interact with this difficult person and wish to be more successful in dealing with them, consider them from the perspective of that insecure person that you know they are. I know that’s somewhat obvious, but I’m not sure we actually act in ways that are consistent with our intuition since we often let our annoyance or our own defensiveness and fears get in the way of doing what we know is the right thing to do.
The best way to manage insecure people is to help them feel more confident or safe. If they’re concerned about being attractive, in control, smart or right, then direct the conversation to how they look nice, are competent, intelligent or wise. Focus on areas where you really believe they are talented or excellent and sincerely compliment them or help them savor their past successes. In my experience, this approach works well most of the time, and an insecure person can become a pussycat if you focus on their good side. After all, when others focus on our best qualities, don’t we all tend to lead with our best foot?
If you don’t feel like you have the time to affirm your colleague, consider how much time you will waste by arguing or exploring unnecessary diversions.
If you can’t think of anything good to focus on, consider that fact. Is it really true that some people have no good qualities at all? None? Start with one, then find something else to be proud of in that person. If you can’t, consider what role you’re playing in this dynamic. Are you sure that they are the difficult person? What role does being judgmental play in this relationship?
If killing them with kindness doesn’t work and they’re behaving badly, instead of arguing or criticizing, consider that they may just want to be heard. Affirming another’s feelings as having validity, even if you don’t share their feelings, often allows the other to take the emotions down a notch or two. For example, instead of arguing why someone should do it your way, empathize with their feelings about that approach or really try to listen to their perspective. When I’ve made the effort to stow my attitude, I have found I’m a much better listener and more likely to learn something I didn’t know before. Others tend to be less defensive when I try to really get them. Remember, just because they have a different viewpoint does not make them wrong. Consider that maybe you’re missing something important and you would benefit from listening without judgment.
If that still doesn’t work, or the tirade is continuing unabated, try a little humor. It can be hard to sneak humor in sometimes. If I want to cheer someone up, I tap dance for them. It’s corny, and I have to be willing to look like an idiot, but it works. (Note to wise: to avoid this embarrassing behavior from me, you know what to do).
In the end, every single one of us is uniquely awesome. By only focusing on what separates us instead of others’ unique and valuable contribution, we create unnecessary barriers, conflict and alienation without realizing we are doing so. For both good and bad relationships, it takes two to tango, and a dysfunctional dynamic continues only if both are willing to perpetuate it. Take personal leadership in your relationships and set the right tone. Even if nothing else changes, the peace of mind is worth the effort.