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Published 16 August 2012 05:02, Updated 16 August 2012 11:13
Eric is accustomed to dealing with people he can’t stand. The company he works for as a senior manager is a snake pit of plotting, conniving and manipulating Machiavelli-clones.
Part of the reason is that the company is under pressure but it is also a characteristic of the communications industry that he works in.
“It is full of people who are hired for their ideas but they are only there because they get on well with someone,” he says, having slipped into a meeting room to talk quietly on his mobile.
“People think it is all about skills but it is not. I was talking to two people yesterday who thought they were going to lose their jobs because their boss didn’t like them.”
Eric, who, understandably, declines to be named, has his own well-practised way of dealing with difficult people. There is a senior colleague now who has started to make trouble and Eric has responded by being very active and very visible with everything he does.
“I am c.c-ing the universe, particularly senior management. I am trying to be particularly good at what I do and am trying to cover more territory, in terms of my job, so I look more useful.
“If this person is badmouthing me, that will shut them down.”
This is a classic effective tactic for neutralising a threat, according to the authors of Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, a how-to guide which has sold more than 2 million copies since 1994.
Naturopathic physicians Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner do recommend stepping forward to make sure you control how you are perceived.
But the key to handling your office “enemy” seems to be in recognising that it won’t work to demand they change their ways. What you must do, instead, is to change your own behaviour.
Make like Henry Higgins: One interesting way of doing this is to apply the Pygmalion effect – where you adjust your behaviour to bring out the best in the other person.
This technique got its name from researchers who observed that Chicago schoolchildren performed at a significantly higher level if their teachers were (falsely) told that the pupils were gifted. People rise and fall to meet the expectations of others, even when those expectations are unspoken.
Says Kirschner: “Everybody has a range of behaviours inside them, from the very best to the very worst.”
Adds Brinkman: “You are changing them but you do that by changing yourself. When you see the effect you have on other people, it is really empowering.”
So, when someone snipes at you, respond by appealing to their better nature: “That’s not like you. You are usually so supportive and helpful.”
Even when what you are saying is patently untrue, by continually responding in this positive manner they will improve their behaviour, says the doctors, known informally as The Ricks.
“Most people jump at the chance to be the better person,” says Kirschner.
You could pick 20 people at work to walk up to the difficult person to deliver the same message – in their own words – “you look happy today”.
“They will go home on cloud nine”.
Seek to understand: Sometimes things are not quite as bad as they seem. Maybe, you need to try to work out why the person is making your life miserable. What is it they really want?
Often you are not the real target but you are copping the flak.
“Maybe it is not happening to you, it is happening through you,” says Kirschner. “Sometimes, changing what is happening in the inside changes the situation.”
Acknowledge them (even when it hurts): If your tormentor is a dreadful know-it-all who constantly makes you jump through unnecessary hoops (just to demonstrate their superiority), give them what they want.
Let them know that you accept that they have superior knowledge so they no longer have to keep proving it. The doctors recently received a letter from a lawyer who was working on a multi-million dollar lawsuit and had to deal with an appalling know-it-all who was representing the other party.
“She had to do the exact opposite of what she really wanted,” says Brinkman. “She had to appreciate him.”
It worked very well at the meeting. Until she left. The lawyer picked up the book she had mistakenly left behind on the table – Dealing With People You Can’t Stand – and then filed a complaint about her “intimidating” tactics.
Defuse: There’s nothing like humour to lighten a difficult situation. Kirschner, who says he relishes the challenge of turning situations around, recalls a flight to New Orleans where he was trapped next to a rude passenger who was drinking too much.
When the plane landed, the large man tried to clamber over Kirschner, who was stuck in the middle seat.
“They told me I was going into the Big Easy, so easy does it big fella,” Kirschner said to him. They both laughed (maybe you had to see the movie) and an unpleasant situation was diffused. “Get them to laugh,” says Brinkman, “and you’ll knock them right out of their behaviour.”
Distract: If your problem person is a “grenade” who blows up every now and then, you can get their attention by calmly and firmly saying their name over and over while they rant.
“Finally, you will get their attention,” says Kirschner.