Complicated people: how to detect them, relate to them and live with them

A few years ago, Dr. Mitchell Kusy, Professor of Leadership and Change at Antioch University, stated that, most of the time, difficult people at work don’t know they are difficult, and may even be surprised to hear what their peers think of them.

All of us have ever encountered the fact of having to deal with difficult people, not only in the workplace but also in our family or personal life and therefore, there are some strategies that we can use from Psychology, as our psychologist Maria Gallego explains to us.

Is having conflicts with people necessarily bad? What does the term “difficult person” refer to?

First of all, coexistence, whether, for example, in the family or at work, can generate conflicts and this does not necessarily have to be bad. By this I mean that the moments in which problems are generated can function as turning points that help us to solve them and move forward, evolve or mature. The problem arises when these conflicts occur with people who act in a particular way. Although we must point out that we are talking about people who do not have an underlying psychiatric disorder, because that would be a different scenario. In this case, we are referring to people with three characteristics:

  • Complicated people in general: irascible, judgmental, who tend to play the victim, etc.
  • People with this stable pattern of “complicated” behavior, it is not enough that the person occasionally has a bad day.
  • People who are immune to persuasion by others to change.

When we meet these types of people, it is natural to try to avoid them, but sometimes it is not possible because it is a boss, a co-worker or a family member.

Could you tell us a little bit more about these difficult people?

Yes, to give you an example, there are the quick-tempered, the cheaters, the judgmental, the easy-going, those who tend to play the victim, but there are many more.

Irascible people are often angry and often flare up, going from 0 to 100 very quickly, and coexistence is often difficult for many reasons. In addition to getting angry too often and too intensely, and expressing their anger inappropriately, they tend to magnify any failure in others, complain constantly, interpret neutral behaviors negatively, have trouble putting themselves in the place of others, and react by attacking when they are made a comment, no matter how small and justified it may be.

It is also difficult to coexist with what we could call cheaters, i.e., those people who want to achieve their goals, regardless of respect for others. Some examples could be those who assert the achievements of others as if they were their own, or those who lie to discredit their competitors.

I am sure that almost all of us know those who could be called critics. People who are constantly on the lookout for any faults that others may commit. The curious thing is that they are not usually self-critical and often try to disguise what they say with comments such as: “I don’t like to speak ill of a colleague, but…”.

Comfortable people are also difficult to get along with and tend to provoke conflicts with their attitude. They tend to always do what they feel like doing without taking into account the problems that may arise from their behavior. An example would be a person who does not want to take responsibility for domestic matters, such as cleaning, even though they live with others, and who justifies it by saying that they do not care if things are dirty.

Finally, although it should be noted that there are many more, there are people who tend to play the victim, those who often perceive reality in a somewhat distorted way, blaming others for their problems.

Is it a good idea to respond in a forceful way to an irascible person?

It would not be a good idea and it is a common mistake that many people make. If we respond in a forceful way to an irascible person who at that moment is angry, we will only make them even more upset, because they will probably interpret it as an attack on you, so it may not work and the problem will get worse. Therefore, it is better to get emotional control.

What can we do when we have to live with a complicated person?

The first thing is to realize a small detail that is simple and that sometimes we forget: people change only if they need to change, so it is convenient to be clear that there will be many cases in which the other person will not change his way of being because he is not going to consider that he has any problem. The second thing is to know that, in spite of this, it is possible that we can try to modify their behavior, at least punctually, in that which affects us. To achieve this, from the point of view of psychology, there are various techniques that help us to deal with the problems that may arise with them in an effective way. For example, trying to make them upset us as little as possible. What we psychologists do is to teach people tools and social skills to cope in such situations, although sometimes it is necessary to know and analyze the specific case.

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So, what techniques can we use?

There are many techniques and tools that we can use in this type of cases. One, for example, is to use self-instructions. Self-instructions are messages or phrases that we say to ourselves to help us to do things right, and that guide our behavior, since they force us to stop and think before acting. We can even rehearse them or take some of them with us and reread them from time to time. Some examples might be:

  • “If this person wants to fool around, I’m not going to choose to get upset about it.”
  • “What this person does is not my responsibility. My responsibility is how I react to their unreasonable behavior.”
  • “I’m going to continue to maintain a positive and reasonable attitude and not be swayed by their absurd behavior.”

There are two others that seem important to me in living with complicated people: Reinforcement and Extinction, i.e. reinforcing the desired behaviors and extinguishing the negative ones, the ones we want to eliminate.

What is reinforcement and extinction?

Reinforcement is a technique used to modify behaviors. Applied to this specific case, it has been demonstrated that positive reinforcement. Such as praise or attention are much more effective in modifying behavior than punishments such as criticism or anger.

The idea is that, every time the other person behaves in the desired way or when he/she comes close to it, we offer him/her some reinforcement or reward, such as paying more attention, being happy, showing more appreciation, etc. To use this technique we must know the particular case to adapt it and choose well the behaviors to be reinforced, and design how the procedure is going to be carried out.

Extinction is another technique to manage problematic behaviors that consists of not responding or paying attention to negative behaviors, those that we want to be extinguished or not to occur. For this it is also important that we know which behaviors are likely to improve, those most likely to improve, if we ignore them.

The best way to influence the behavior of others is to combine the extinction of undesirable behaviors of others with the reinforcement of their desirable behaviors, those that we like the most. That is to say, to stop paying attention to the counterproductive behaviors that we do not like and to pay attention by reinforcing the alternative desirable behaviors.

Let’s put a case: Let’s imagine a very critical person with whom we have to talk frequently. We may not pay any attention to her when she makes critical or negative comments, in which case it would be done to extinguish those behaviors and be very attentive whenever she makes positive comments about other people. The key is to stay in this behavior for a while, to be consistent. If the person does not have very clear how to carry out all this, for it we are the professionals of the mental health that we can help them.

How can we handle the silent anger of those who are hostile, but don’t want to talk about it during the anger?

We can use a technique we call “disarming”. It consists of asking them what is going on and, if they don’t respond, agreeing with their right to remain silent by saying, for example, “I see you don’t feel like talking about it. Whenever you want, I’d like to talk about it.

And what can we do with people who complain too much?

Many people are uncomfortable dealing with this type of person because they don’t know how to deal with them. They usually give them advice to help them solve their problems or to see difficulties in a more positive light, but the problem is that it usually doesn’t work. In this case, the “disarming technique” can also be used. It would consist of listening empathetically, trying to put ourselves in the other person’s place and agreeing with everything they say, with part of what they say, with their right to see it that way or that it is logical for them to feel upset, without contributing anything else.

There are times when it is difficult for us not to get upset. Is there anything that works to avoid doing so?

The “time-out” technique allows us to postpone what we are doing, for example, conversing or talking until we are calm or the upset has subsided. It consists of saying to the other person, in a calm and firm tone of voice, even though we are not: “We will talk another time when we are calmer”, for example. A variant could be used when the other person is verbally aggressive with us. We could tell her that we will only talk to her when she calms down and remain firm in that posture as if we were a broken record. Finally, there are times when we are starting to get upset and we cannot use the “time-out” because it is not possible to remove ourselves from the situation. In these cases we can use the refuge technique that consists of responding to the essential or not responding at all, if possible, while we put into practice emotional self-control techniques such as relaxation, slow breathing or self-instructions that we talked about before.

What last tips or recommendations would you give?

I think there are two very important ones. The first one is to write down. Sometimes it is useful to write down what we want to say to someone, not for them to read it, but to order and review our ideas and arguments, prioritizing them. And, finally, do not forget what a popular saying recommends us: “to be a dove among doves and a hawk among hawks”. Good advice to be friendly, trusting and open with cordial and well-meaning people and to have the ability to be suspicious, cautious and, above all, firm when dealing with hostile or malicious people.