Coping with Difficult People

Dealing with Defensive Behavior

Coping with Difficult People — abstract illustration
Photo by feedough on depositphotos

Strategies for Coping with Difficult People

How often, after losing an exchange with a difficult person, have you slapped yourself on the forehead and thought, “Why didn’t I handle that better?”

Brain freeze, a slang expression for the inability to cope spontaneously, is a common problem when dealing with difficult people who seem to have a knack for triggering automatic defensive behaviors. The best way to handle brain freeze is to plan ahead for coping with these difficult people.

Your plan should take into consideration the type of person you’ll be dealing with, the typical behaviors the person will exhibit, and the actual coping steps to be used.

Also, you should get input from others who aren’t part of the problem, because they might have insights you haven’t thought of. Then you should formulate your plan, review your plan with an objective person, and practice, practice, practice.

The first strategy, formulate your plan, comprises four steps:

The first step is to write down the actions and behaviors the difficult person displays. Does the person get angry easily? Does he shout? Is he aggressive? Is he obsessed with having power?

The second step is to write down how you’ve responded to the difficult person’s behaviors in the past. Did you get angry? Did you shout? Did you quietly withdraw? Did you become sarcastic?

The third step of formulating a plan is to evaluate your notes. Which of your responses, if any, seemed to improve your interaction with the difficult person? Which responses seemed to aggravate the situation?

The fourth step of formulating your strategy is to determine a course of action. Jot down everything that pops into your head. Your initial ideas don’t have to be realistic, or even serious. Just get them all on paper. When you’re done writing, examine the ideas until you find one you think is viable.

Write down your new plan and the date by which you’ll carry it out. Committing to a definite date takes your plan out of the realm of good intentions and makes it a practical reality.

Choose someone trustworthy with whom you can review your plan. Ask this individual if your perceptions are accurate and if your plan is truly realistic. If necessary, work with this individual to refine your plan or your projected deadline for following through with it.

The third and final strategy is to practice your plan of action with someone. Thinking about your responses isn’t enough. Practice out loud so you can hear the words. Practice will make your responses flow smoothly and naturally.

Once you incorporate all three strategies — formulating a plan, reviewing it with an objective person, and practicing its execution — you have a viable plan for coping with the difficult person. Learning to plan ahead can make your coping strategies more effective.

Identifying and Overcoming Defensive Behavior

Everyone gets defensive at some time or another. It’s a natural reaction to any number of circumstances. But by becoming defensive, you delay or deflect any chance of resolving the issue that made you defensive in the first place.

Therefore, it’s important to understand the types of defensive behavior and be aware of how you can overcome your defensive reactions when you’re placed in difficult situations at work.

At the most basic level, defensive reactions are aimed at survival. The defensive reaction to a physical threat is to fight or to run. But most perceived threats in the workplace are to an employee’s emotional or psychological well-being — or, more specifically, to the employee’s self-esteem. The response, however, is similar to a perceived physical threat — people either strike out verbally or they retreat.

These instinctive responses result in the four common types of defensive reactions you use in difficult situations — blaming others, blaming yourself, walling off, and diverting attention.

When you feel threatened, it’s common to retaliate by blaming someone else. However, if the other person refuses to let you blame him or her, you could easily feel threatened enough to start blaming yourself instead of the other person.

By placing the blame on yourself, you’re still reacting defensively. Your response is calculated to deflect further blows from the other person and elicit sympathy as well.

Some people “wall off” their perceived attacker when they’re threatened. That is, they erect an imaginary wall between the threat and themselves. From that point forward, they refuse to communicate.

The “diverter” is someone who uses misdirection to deflect threats. He might try to change the subject or use humor or flattery to placate his attacker and divert attention from himself.

Now that you are familiar with the most common defensive behaviors, you’re ready to learn how to overcome them. Try these three steps for responding nondefensively in a business situation:

When someone says something that makes you want to react defensively, instead of instantly reacting, pause. Stop what you’re doing and evaluate your initial, internal response to the given stimuli.

While you’re pausing, note which defensive behavior you were about to use. Were you just about to blame someone else? Were you going to try to deflect attention away from yourself? Were you prepared to blame yourself for the problem? Or were you just going to shut down all communication and leave?

What do you think you’re being accused of, and why? For example, if your team is late in turning in a project, do you feel like it’s your fault? Or do you know that it’s someone else’s fault, but you’re worried that you’ll be blamed instead?

Are you afraid of appearing weak, incompetent, or foolish in the eyes of your co-workers and bosses? Dig deeply to unearth just what it is, exactly, that you’re afraid of in a certain situation.

If you know what threatens you, it’ll be much easier for you to react without defensiveness when you’re placed in a threatening situation. For instance, if you know your team will be criticized because a project deadline was missed, plan to accept responsibility. Then be prepared to outline the steps you’ll take to ensure that future project deadlines won’t be missed.

It’s easy to react defensively in difficult situations. However, by being aware of the different types of defensive behavior, and following these three steps, you’ll be able to respond calmly and rationally to any situation, no matter how threatening it is.

A consultant, trainer and author specialized in management, corrections and industrial relations

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