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How to take the SCARY out of scary people

Let’s face it, no matter how high up you are in an organisation, dealing with difficult people, is well … difficult.

If we don’t know how to deal with them, we generally don’t, and then as more and more time passes, looking the other way becomes the default coping mechanism.

So, you give up.  You give in.  You start looking for other jobs … right along with your best staff and in the meantime, you watch the carnage continue.  You see new staff turn up, full of ideas and fresh perspectives, and then day by day see their enthusiasm wane under the weight of all the nastiness.  You see rumours get spread, people take aim at each other, and a war get declared on everything and everyone … except the people who started it.

I get it.

These people are the thorn in your side that you just can’t dislodge. Every time you try to do something about it, they end up falling in the shit but come out smelling of roses, while the stench of dysfunction permeates your reputation, your relationships, and your work-life balance.

When you don’t deal with the manipulators, the bullies, the gossipers, the underminers you end up losing the people you want to keep and end up keeping the people that you want to lose – the ones annihilating your workplace culture, creating silos, taking aim on fresh new perspectives, and spending their days igniting fires instead of helping you to ignite growth.

So why is it so hard to manage these people?

Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because you’re doing it all wrong.

These people appear to be full of themselves, self-important, fearless and in control. But consider this … if someone really likes themselves, do you think they need to annihilate another person?

When it comes to control, why do they only have it when they take away other peoples?

If they need to manipulate others to get them onside, how much faith do they have in their ability to be liked just as they are?

Sit back, strap yourself in and let me take you on a bit of a guided tour around the mind of your problem staff member, before I give you a bit of insight that will completely change how you deal with these people.

Vile self-talk. They might look all self-assured, but trust me, the only reason they declare war on you, is to call a temporary ceasefire on themselves. Their self-talk is horrible.

Loneliness. Despite the following they seem to have in the workplace, it’s often a very different story outside of it. They don’t have many friends and any friendships they do form, often start off really intense and then fizzle out with the former friend being assigned top place on the enemy list.

Crippling fear of failure. In fact, they are SO convinced that they will look stupid, be called out or not know what to say that they’ll often avoid training, resist change, and hightail it out of any situation where they might be put on the spot. If you bring in a new software program, they’ll be lamenting over how much it cost, what a waste of time it is and how it’s not their fault if things get messed up.

Threats, threats and more threats. The idea of undertaking performance management or professional development terrifies them (because they’ll no longer be the alpha), so they may threaten to resign, make passive-aggressive statements, and could even throw all kinds of guilt grenades.

Problem conveyor belts.  These people are self-appointed fault finders.  Even if things are right, they’ll always point out what’s wrong. Blame is their best friend, and they’ll almost go into anaphylactic shock if you ask them to be part of the solution.  They are lovingly referred to as the “Yebuts”.

“Yeah, but we tried that.”

“Yeah, I know someone who did that, but it never worked for them.”

“Yeah I can do that, but not anytime soon.”

“Yeah, give it a go, but don’t expect much.”

They are masters at clutching defeat from the jaws of victory – every damned time!  Oh, and they always know who the problem is … but you guessed it, it’s never them.

Silent assassins. These people will very rarely talk TO you, but they’ll REGULARLY talk about you. If they do talk to you, it’s often to gather information or for the purposes of manipulation.  They’ll light a match and start rumours that will cremate relationships – especially between people they are deep down, jealous of because they appear to be well-liked or are getting more credit or attention.

Hero worship. They NEED to be the favourite and they need everyone to know about it. They’ll sidle up to new staff and tell them who to stay away from and who they can trust.  They’ll set people against each other to win favour with others, and they’ll break rules and ignore boundaries if it’ll win them a fan.  They’ll make you believe they’re in your corner, but they’ll throw you under the bus without a moment’s hesitation.  They’ll be in allegiance with people one minute and actively annihilating them the next.

So, now that I have painted a bleak picture and made you possibly fear these people even more, there is a very big message I want to share with you.

They are not behaving this way because they are scary. They are behaving this way, because they are sacred.

Scared that they’ll look stupid.

Scared that they’ll say the wrong thing.

Scared that they’ll be overlooked, abandoned, rejected or ridiculed … again!

They are NOT happy, and no, they do NOT like the way they feel, but the whole time they make life hard for you, the less inclined you are to interact with them.

Their behaviour is a big brick wall.  They don’t like it, but it keeps them safe.

If you’re wary of them, you’ll stay away and just like your pattern of avoidance has become, their pattern of objection becomes their new normal.

So, what do you do about these people?

Nothing.

Yep, nothing.

Instead, you work with the people that have the REAL power to create change.

Your rescuers – AKA your enablers.

The people who go quiet when difficult people are around.  The ones who just nod and agree to keep the peace. The ones that brush off their behaviour as “it’s just who they are” and the ones that give in because it’s just easier.

THESE are not just your saviours, they are also the root of the problem.

Again, just like the bullies, not because they’re bad people, but because they are stuck in a cycle, they don’t know they’re stuck in. The drama cycle.

Are you aware that every time to bury your head in the sand, you issue a huge permission slip and become a cheerleader for negative behaviour?

Are you aware that every time you just go with the flow, you create a tsunami of disengagement?

Are you aware that every time you rescue yourself with silence, with distraction, with avoidance, that you tell all the good people that they’re of no value?

But this does NOT mean you need to lace up your boots and declare war.

It does NOT mean that you need to stare these people down and compromise your own values.

It does NOT mean that you need to start any kind of confrontation.

Quite the opposite.

It means that you need to realise, that in order to change the behaviour, you do not need to match it.

Teach yourself and your fellow rescuers (aka enablers) the art of curious questioning.

When the difficult person is in full flight, waxing lyrical about how someone has ‘done them wrong’, INSTEAD of clamming up, waiting it out and offering little more than a conciliatory “aaahhhh oh hmmmm”  …. You get curious and BUY IN.

You ask them the right questions and you’ll not only end up stopping the conversation, but you’ll also teach said difficult person to not have any more of those ones with you.

Every bully, manipulator, thorn in your side needs ONE thing in order to thrive.

Groupies.

When the supply of groupies dries up, and the supply of challengers floods in, you’ll turn around your workplace within weeks.

Let’s do a makeover of our earlier scenario.

Difficult person is in full flight, waxing lyrical about how someone has ‘done them wrong’, INSTEAD of clamming up, waiting it out and offering little more than a conciliatory “aaahhhh oh hmmmm”  …. INSTEAD, you say … “Wow, that’s no good, this is important, you need to go and talk to them about this, I tell you what, I’ll come with you.”

What do you think will happen?

The conversation will end, with aforementioned difficult person will probably walk off in a flurry of “there’s no point” … or “they’ll never listen”, or some other retort as they exit the interaction.

But that’s OK.  What you did right there was set a really big, solid boundary of ‘I’m going to take you seriously and make you accountable’.

Nothing will change straight away, but the next time this happens, you reply with something similar.

I can guarantee you, there won’t be a third time.

Yes, you will become persona non grata, but what do you reckon would happen if ALL of your rescuers (aka enablers) responded to resulting conversations (about you) in the same way?

Another example: Difficult person corners you in the hallway, (or even messages you after hours) and starts cremating the character of another friend, staff member etc.  Instead of the usual (as above) conciliatory nods and agreeance (and wishing they’d shut up), you would simply do the same thing – BUY IN.

“So, what specifically is it about that person that grates on you?”

“Everything!”

“Everything?”

“Yeah, everything.”

“The way she has her coffee?”

“Well, no …”

“So not everything?”

“Well, lots of things.”

“Specifically?”

At which point, said difficult person will probably either change the subject or end the conversation citing a meeting they have to get to or may even resort to a sarcastic “never mind, forget I said anything”.

Do not bite!!!  Let it go through to the keeper with a polite, “ok”.

Again, you haven’t confronted, you haven’t told them they’re wrong, all you have done is shown interest and asked for more information – which difficult people will very rarely give – authentically.  They’ll usually offer a diagnosis rather than offer tangible examples of why they clash with someone. “She’s just so full of herself” – diagnosis.  It’s an assumption.  But with curious questioning you can get down to the actual behaviour, which could be something like “she stares at me and goes quiet when I’m talking”, which you can then explore further with, you guessed it, curious questioning.  “When she does that, do you feel it means that she’s full of herself?”   

But, I doubt you’d actually get to this stage as difficult people will end a curious questioning conversation long before it gets to the nuts and bolts of the issue.

Seriously – get rid of this notion that you need to join people in aggressive behaviour in order to stop it.  Simply start asking for clarification, more information, seek to understand and you’ll completely change these behaviours and bring to a difficult person’s attention, something that possibly no one ever has done before effectively.

By using this approach, your difficult person will start to associate whingeing and bitching with discomfort, and they’ll adjust their communication and behaviour accordingly.  You’ll be setting boundaries where, let’s face it, currently there are none.

They’ll become nicer, gentler, easier-to-like people.  I see it happen all the time.

There are hundreds of ways to use curious questioning in your conversations.  This approach helps you to hold people accountable without starting a fight, and when you equip yourself and your staff with curious questioning tools, you’ll stop letting the ‘tools’ run amok in your workplace.

It also works a treat in personal relationships, family dynamics, friendships, and community groups.

It will take the ‘scary’ out of EVERY conversation and it’ll save you a fortune in having to buy new undies.

So, if you have a tyrant in your workplace, I’m here to tell you, they are NOT the problem, your belief that you need to confront them, discipline them, or stand up to them is.

What if you don’t need to do any of that to create huge, peaceful, long-lasting change? What if you could step up as a leader and get a backlog of CVs handed to you because of the trust and psychological safety you have created.

What if you could do it easily, rapidly and affordably?

If you’d like me to teach you and/or your team the art of painless, curious questioning, reach out to me and let’s set up a time to have a chat.

I can guarantee that whatever my training costs you will pale into comparison of what doing nothing will.

Let me know if you want to throw some “difficult statements” at me to see curious questioning in action.

Leanne Shaw

Leanne Shaw

Conflict Resolution Specialist | Accredited Click! Colours Facilitator | Executive Leadership Coach at Reboot Mindset Coaching

Leanne Shaw
Senior Coach/Trainer
Leanne Shaw

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