Dealing with Difficult People
Many of us consistently struggle with how to deal with difficult people. Whether you’re in the workplace or if these difficult people are in your own family, you have to find ways of dealing with people we find challenging.
When it comes to people who are self-important, chronic complainers, bullies, victims or martyrs, we generally struggle to manage our responses effectively. However, NLP training teaches us that we are in control of a lot more than we think we are, and have a capacity to respond in more considered and useful ways once we have the tools to do so. If you have Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) communication and self-management skills you should have a vast range of responses. If you don’t, then here are a couple of simple points that don’t require any real background knowledge.
The Drama Cycle
One thing I teach in my NLP Practitioner Certification is something called “The Drama Cycle.” This is not NLP and a purist might challenge its presence in an NLP training, but NLP is a model that draws from the best approaches in the world, and my students find it extremely useful.
The drama cycle literally explains most human interaction. In the drama cycle, there is one of three positions you can take. if you play one of them, then you will tend to play in all of them at different times. You will either play the rescuer, the victim, or the persecutor.
The rescuer is the person who’s always trying to help out when people who are stuck. They often have good intentions, but sometimes are driven by their own need for significance or purpose, which they enhance when the assist others. Outside of their conscious awareness, it often satisfies a deeper need in them. It offers a sense of significance, importance, and contribution.
The victim is the person who is habitually stuck. I’m not talking about somebody who has just broken their leg and they need a bit of help. I’m talking about someone who constantly struggles and their life. It’s as if they have a dark cloud above them. They lead and try to connect with others through complaining and talking about their problems. They regularly lean on others, espousing statements of helplessness, and often put a fair amount of energy into trying to guilt people into helping them.
The other role of the Drama Cycle is the persecutor, the person who has no tolerance for the victim. They might even seek out and target the victim. This is the office bully. They are intent on punishing, often using harsh tones, or conversely stony silence or disdainful looks to communicate their dissatisfaction. Sound familiar?
So how does this Drama Cycle work?
This is a very large subject and I could talk about this for hours, but here I can only cover it in a very cursory way. Essentially, once you are in this Drama Cycle, drama is the currency. Now, if you play one of these roles, you play all of these roles. You might have a default. You might lean towards the victim position or you might lean towards the rescuer position. If you keep trying to rescue people and they just don’t come with you, or keep making the same mistakes and complaining about it, there will be a part of you that might just drop into the persecutor position. How do you know you are there? Tone! Statements like, “For God’s sake” are a bit of a give away, even if you don’t state it externally, you are there.
At that point, you’ve dropped into the persecutor. So none of these are mutually exclusive. We have all payed these roles at some point in our lives.
When we are dealing with difficult people, we often see them as either the victim or the persecutor. And even if we don’t physically rescue, our desire to try to make them feel better, somehow make up for their situation, or to appease them in some way, often puts us in the rescuer position. But we’re in it. You’re in the drama of it and we will be upset by it. We can go from rescuing someone to feeling persecuted very quickly because now we feel like it’s costing us too much. So the lines between these three positions are very, very blurred.
There’s also the fourth position and that’s referred to as the observer position. The observer is the coach, the adult position, the person who is not buying into all the drama, who doesn’t get drawn in emotionally. They are more likely to respond with words to the effect of, “That’s interesting.” The observer is witness to the drama but can remain solution-oriented. The observer is the position that is most useful because the observer position doesn’t get caught up in rescuing.
A typical observer response to a tale of woe is, “Okay, that must have been challenging. So what are you going do about this now?” They don’t get emotionally drawn in or let their emotions get rattled. So the observer sets decent boundaries.
The observer is more likely to recognise that we are all responsible for our choices. No one gets to make you feel inferior or angry or unappreciated. No one gets to make you feel anything. That’s up to you. I can’t make you love me. I can’t make you hate me. I can’t make you feel anything towards me. That will be your choice. And so, as the observer, you have a choice about how you respond to the world. Most people do not spend very much time in the observer position.
What keeps us stuck in the Drama Cycle?
We get stuck in the Drama cycle for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is our inability to maintain boundaries. And before you explain this skills gap as a result of not loving yourself enough, that is not it!
It’s because you’ve not learned how to manage your own emotional state. It’s because you haven’t learned that “Hmmm interesting” is a much more useful response most of the time than, “I can’t believe this,” “How dare they?” or “What if they don’t like me anymore?”
These sorts of reactions preclude you having a choice in the way you respond to difficult people or situations. No one has control over you unless you give them that control.
Are you conflict adverse?
Another factor that makes us more prone to the actions of difficult people is that most of us are conflict adverse. So if you have poor self-regulation, you don’t trust yourself enough to be able to have a serious or challenging conversation, then you’re unlikely to have it. A lot of people also fail to make the distinction between being assertive and being aggressive. So if you’re worried about becoming aggressive when all you want is assertive, you are likely to baulk at confrontation.
Being assertive, to give you the distinction, is being able to assert your rights. Being aggressive is asserting your rights over someone else. Some are more worried that they will end up in tears rather than being able to maintain a professional position. For others its an excessive need for acceptance, (almost always learned in childhood) that makes them give too much weight to others people’s opinions. Once again, this will probably lead to avoidance.
Do you have an excessive need for acceptance?
Can I suggest for a moment that acceptance is one of the single worst patterns you can have? The excessive need for acceptance will completely limit your life. That’s something that, if you come to an NLP training, you could work on.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should not care what people think. I think that’s ridiculous. But it’s about giving appropriate weight to the views of others depending on the context. What you want is a clear view of your own worth, with the ability to check in with others.
Do you lack process?
Moreover, you could be hampered by a lack of process. If you just don’t know how to have a conversation that’s potentially confrontational, or how to keep an argument contained, a robust discussion could initiate a series of unforeseen consequences. And it’s our fear of consequences, whether they are real or imagined, that often dissuades us I’m taking action.
And finally, you need effective impulse control so you don’t get caught up in the drama. You have to make a distinction between what is personal and what merely affects you personally. If you lean towards being sensitive then you are going to be much less likely to have to confront conversations and a wider range of the population will seem difficult to you.
How do you determine it is personal?
Let me offer you something. Anything someone says to you is not personal. It may well say more about them than you. And even if they are talking about you directly, making it a personal attack, what they’re really talking about are the patterns that you run.
They don’t get to make it personal for you. Only you can do that. I’m gonna suggest to you that no matter what anyone says to you, they don’t decide how you should respond to it. A criticism or a complaint isn’t personal unless you decide it is. This is how you maintain your own personal power in challenging situations.
Do you Self Reference?
Another factor is something called self-referencing. It’s also a cognitive distortion. In essence, it’s a belief that people and the world should act the way we want them to. A standard self-referencing statement is, “I can’t believe they did that. I would never do that.” It’s where you are using your values, your expectations, your standards, and assuming that the rest of the world should do the same. They are not going to. And the more you want the world to be different, the more disappointment and frustration you’ll feel. Other people have the right to be total idiots. That’s their right. You have the right to ignore them. The more you want the world to be different, or to meet your needs, the more you’re out of touch with reality.
So understand that in any population like a workplace, you’re going to find difficult people among the mix. There’s no getting around that. You can avoid them but probably not forever, and if they are in your family its hard to exile them completely. And this is where NLP comes in. It gives you tools to manage your own internal state. Once you can do that, you can choose your response. So instead of reacting, you respond.
Now, one way you can do it is just to simply ignore it. Just say, “Thanks. Okay, I’ll take that on board,” and move on. The second is you could build a level of rapport with that person. And I’m talking about NLP unconscious rapport. I’m not talking about liking them. I’m talking about being able to get a level of trust with them. And that comes from you appearing to be more like them. This is day two of an NLP practitioner training. You can take control. There’s a difference between what you control and what you can at best influence. Take control of what you can and that is your own internal state.
A lot of NLP trainers would say that you control everything in your life. That simply isn’t true. In fact it is a little bit ridiculous really. I don’t control what you are thinking right now as you are reading this. But I do control what happens internally. Externally, at best, I have influence. I can influence. And the more effective I am in communication, the more effective I am in my own state management, the more influence I can bring to bare.
And you could always reframe their position into a positive intention. So a complaint could be reframed as them wanting things to be better.
They may not frame it in a way that’s terribly positive, but you can look for the positive in it. And there’s always a positive in it. Anything negative, then in essence, they are looking to improve things. Then you might say that that’s not necessarily the case. I’m suggesting you work on what is going to serve you, not really what their intention is.
But I can tell you something. If someone complains to you and you say to them, “So are you really saying you want to make things better?” What are they going to say? They’re not going say, “No. I just wanna bitch.” They’re going to grab that. And then you can work towards, “Okay, what can we do to improve things here.” And then you start to run that conversation. Again, the more skilled you are, the more able you are to do that. And you could also respond with a level of humor and flexibility. And you can, again, only do that when there’s a level of non-attachment. The moment you buy into this emotionally, you’ve lost it.
So when you have a meaningful or crucial conversation with someone, you’ve got to ask permission first. For example, “Do you mind if I give you some feedback? There might be a way of stopping this that I can offer you.”
Ensure you don’t embarrass people because they do not like to be shamed. Don’t have the conversation in front of other people and stay objective and impersonal.
The more your emotions kick in, the more this will be seen as an attack. And compartmentalise. What that really means is that it’s a cognitive skill. What it means is to be able to separate yourself from how you’re feeling about it, to be able to part something and decide, “That’s not important right now. I’m only talking about this.”
Simply avoid phrases like, “With all due respect,” because everyone knows what’s coming after that. Now, avoid “but” as a softener. You know, “I think you’re a good worker, but.” Well, that’s not a good way to start. Everyone knows that all that happened there was you tried to soften what you’re about to say now. And in actual fact, the “but” really negates what’s said before. The person was only gonna hear the second half of that sentence. You could talk about dissociative language, the communication is a problem here or its effect seems to be, rather than talk about things in direct form.
And another way I like to do something, and I do this much more in a relationship, is, “It might just be a perception, and I don’t know accurate it is,” and then I state what I’m concerned about because the truth is we all see the world through our own perceptions. I can’t step outside of my own perceptual frame. I’m gonna stray no matter where I go. The idea that I can step into being truly Italian is a myth. I can’t really do that. I will see what I choose to see at an unconscious level. I might notice some things going wrong. Okay, but am I being accurate with that? Am I just noticing those things because I’m more sensitive to those things?
Until you’ve got some external evidence, until you’ve got some external check, it is only a perception. And you’re better off starting your conversation, talking about it as a perception because it separates you from it and it stops it being a personal attack. And of course, if all this fails, then you can always escalate. From that saying, you can probably do even now.
So NLP training teaches you the skillset and talk that you need to be able to manage difficult people much more effectively.