Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

By Nando Pelusi, Ph.D.

When dealing with difficult people, our immediate urge is to jump to our own defense. Today, there are smarter moves to make when dealing with a tyrant.

Some people go to extraordinary lengths to be difficult. Think of the diva actress whose on-set needs can never be met or the boss who keeps moving the goal posts. The difficult person elevates the deliberate provocation to an art form. The underlying message is often, “Unless you agree with me and go along, you’ll regret it.”

One clue that a person is attempting to intimidate or manipulate you is the use of unpredictable, or protean, behavior—acts that are random and seemingly out of the blue. A dictator keeps his minions guessing—and scared. Some forms of despotism are much subtler: Duke Ellington was known for provoking heated rivalries and feuds among his bandmates in the belief that such strife would make the music hotter.

Erratic behavior is a powerful weapon because it defies accurate prediction. Often, the behavior comes as a surprise even to the person generating it.

Flying into a rage or staring you down and dismissing you summarily are common strategies to keep you off-kilter. Unpredictable actions serve the purpose of confusing potential usurpers and avoiding responsibility. Your boss freaks out, throws things and yells. Some might call him irrational. But the irrationality gives him a leg up.

Erratic behavior served adaptive ends in our past, and it still does. Just as a minnow might cut a zigzagging path to avoid being snapped up by a larger fish, the boss alternately screams and stonewalls to avoid having her motives laid bare.

Protean behavior evolved to prevent people from being psyched out. That’s not to say that fickle acts are always openly hostile and aggressive. The difficult person can just as easily be solicitous or seductive: Think of femme fatales from biblical Judith to Mata Hari. Unpredictable behavior is at heart about deception, and it’s just as likely to be unconscious as conscious.

If such behavior comes from a boss or a spouse, you’ve got some tricky choices to make. There are several problems confronting you at once, since you’re juggling competing goals. Your ego tells you to stick up for yourself, but you want to avoid an unnecessary argument.

Usually we can’t resist getting riled up in our own defense. The ease with which we fall into dueling dyads is a remnant of a “culture of honor” that most of our ancestors needed to adopt. Our neural circuitry equips us to immediately jump to our own defense. The Neanderthink urge to rectify an injustice kicks in automatically, lest we accept abject defeat. The immediacy of the “me versus you” and “us versus them” reaction hinders a more intelligent and considered response.

We usually regret having charged into battle—or at least we wonder what we were thinking. And that’s just it: We weren’t thinking. An emotional reaction bypasses thoughtful deliberation. No rational person today would engage in an argument with a random person on the street. But if someone bumps into us, blocks our way or otherwise wants to hassle us, our immediate inclination is to freeze, fight or flee. Similarly, our immediate response to the verbal slights or manipulative barbs of a difficult person is often to fight back. Your immediate reaction is, “I can’t stand this crazy, insulting behavior.”

We too quickly jump to our own defense when we feel insulted. We do so because we have evolved a hypervigilant concern for our standing among peers. This focus on status makes sense as a play for dominance and power, qualities that translate into real mating options. The need to retain status is an example of Neanderthink. This knee-jerk demand for status can push us to get outraged and to lose focus on larger goals, such as keeping your job or your mate. We want to prove that we are correct—but doing it angrily and intolerantly can hinder your major objectives. Dominance at every turn is good, but not a necessity.

Still, we’re so captivated by displays of dominance that we pay boxers millions of dollars to watch them square off and even pay to see professional wrestlers play-act a power struggle.

This is not to say that everyone has the immediate urge to lash out in self-defense. Some people freeze when confronted with criticism, telling themselves, “I must not be criticized” or “I must be above criticism.” Temporary paralysis in response to a physical threat may once have kept you alive; but freezing in the face of a verbal onslaught won’t help you make your case.

To cope with a difficult person, you need to learn to question your automatic defensive philosophies, such as “I will not be treated that way; I won’t let you get away with this” and “My reputation is on the line if I fail.”

Resisting the trap set by difficult people is easier if you’re aware of your vulnerability to getting hurt and then feeling angry. That tendency is a vestige of Neanderthink, because there was a time when your status was more closely linked to life or death than it is today.

Better to check your fight, flight or freeze reactions and refuse to be a part of a duel in which you’re an inadvertent participant. Sure, you need to stand up for yourself, but do so without demanding that you be above criticism at all costs. Remind yourself of your long-range goals: saving time, energy, hassle and maybe even your own hide.

Staying Rational When Confronting the Difficult Person
  1. If you’re required to respond to an irrational attack, ask the antagonist what exactly he is upset about, in order to show that you are interested in communicating rather than in arguing. The burden of responsibility is now back on the antagonist.
  2. After the unreasonable salvo, go ahead and agree with a kernel of truth in the complaint. You’ll overcome your own Neanderthink impulse to jump into the fray by looking for that one small fact about which the critic is correct—and then agreeing with that single point. Your boss calls you a screw-up. Ask, “In what way did I screw up?” If she says, “You just are a screw up,” agree with one discreet example (if it is accurate), but correct her overgeneralization.
  3. You can more easily and tactfully defend yourself once the emotional heat has abated. Say your boss says, “Again, you’re totally screwing up.” You can defend without a defensive tone: “It is true that I made a mistake, and I appreciate constructive feedback to minimize errors in the future.” Stand up for yourself by reiterating the specific error, but refuse to be incorrectly labeled a screw-up.
  4. Offer to the difficult person your best guess as to what he or she is feeling, and ask for feedback. “It sounds like you’re angry right now, and I’m sorry about that.” This demonstrates a willingness to understand the difficult person’s frustration without blame or defensiveness.
  5. Resist the urge to fight to win the argument. Listening and asking questions leads others to their own better conclusions. This process is known as the Socratic method. Although it didn’t ultimately help Socrates, today’s laws are a bit more enlightened—so it might help you.



Environment plays a huge role in how body language is expressed and interpreted. When people feel free to express themselves without reserve, you can get a great read on their nonverbal gestures. For the most part, when those same people are forced into a more conservative setting, their behavior adapts to the surroundings. But this isn’t always the case. (Picture the coworker who takes his frat-party behavior into the conference room, for example.) What are you supposed to make of people who don’t adjust their behavior to their surroundings?

Letting Loose

When you head out for a night on the town with your friends, it’s a good bet that your body language is as relaxed and as uninhibited as it’s ever going to be. You’re touching people, invading their personal space, smiling, angling your head to look coy, batting your eyelashes, and puckering up—in a friendly way, of course.

When you head back to the office on Monday, most of these behaviors won’t be coming with you. There’s simply a time and a place for wild displays of giddiness and enthusiasm, and then there are settings that are far more reserved. Granted, some workplaces are more relaxed than others, but for the most part, there’s an expectation for employees to behave in a professional manner. That pretty much nixes the cuddling and the friendly touches you enjoy doling out over the weekend.

Rein It In

But let’s say you’re one of those people who doesn’t believe in toning yourself down for anyone. What other people see is what they get, and you’re not ashamed to be loud, brash, and very expressive, no matter where you are. There’s certainly something to be celebrated about having a free spirit, and if your lack of inhibition has served you well, then more power to you. However, many people who refuse to adjust their body language to their environment find themselves on the outside looking in.

Bosses expect employees to conform to a certain standard. Coworkers want to know that the people they’re in the trenches with are professional enough to get the job done. Everyone in the office wants to avoid offending clients. These types of relationships rely on successful verbal and nonverbal behavior.

When it comes time for promotions and raises, everything about you is up for evaluation, including your body language. If you’re making people uncomfortable with your nonverbal cues or if your behavior is a huge distraction to the staff, then you’re a liability to the company.

Some examples of distracting or offensive body language in the workplace:

  • Ogling potential mates, which is just plain lecherous
  • Standing too close to coworkers or clients invades their personal space and makes them uncomfortable. Give people at least 18 inches, up to 3 feet if possible.
  • Constantly touching other people is also an invasion of personal space.
  • Continuous yawning or sighing makes you appear bored. These are also “contagious” behaviors. (Before you know it, everyone in the office is half-asleep.)
  • Foot tapping or finger drumming can be very distracting to others around you.
  • Lots of self-touches—to the nose, to the eyes, to the mouth—make people queasy. No one wants to touch your hand when it’s been all over your mucous membranes.
  • Constant throat clearing or loud, booming laughter can also be highly irritating, especially in close quarters.

So should you sell your soul to the corporation and become an unmoving, unfeeling zombie? Not necessarily; just consider toning down any inappropriate behaviors—and then note if others are responding to you in a more positive manner. A small change in your nonverbal cues may be all it takes to move the spotlight off of your behavior and onto your work, where it rightly belongs.