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Vol. LXI, No. 18
September 4, 2009
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Consultant Offers Ways to Deal with Difficult People


Sandra Crowe discusses handling the handfuls.
Sandra Crowe discusses handling the handfuls.

Judging from the number of people who filled Masur Auditorium June 18 for a lecture on “Dealing with Difficult People,” and the emotional pitch of their chatter before guest speaker and author Sandra Crowe took the stage, it seems at least possible that NIH might employ one or two difficult people.

Now it’s not you, and it’s not me—let’s get that out of the way early. But there does seem to be a small number of people for whom the workday is a trial of aggression and frustration. Crowe’s 75-minute presentation, leavened by several role-playing skits, boiled down to something like lessons from an experienced toreador: how to wave less red flag in front of the raging bull and how to artfully avoid its horns.

“Difficult people live outside of you and inside of you as well,” Crowe counseled. “It’s like the two wings of a bird.” Her prescription for keeping negative emotions from taking flight included three parts: learn to become aware of your own triggers, those pet peeves that the difficult people in life locate so readily; understand why people are difficult—it can lead to feeling less prone to anger; and practical solutions—Crowe offered 6 tools for maintaining one’s emotional balance at the end of her talk.

“People don’t care why you’re angry,” she explained, “they care that you are angry. Once you’re aware of what triggers your anger, you can prepare ahead” and minimize the emotional toll. Crowe proposed designing conversations so that the content flows in a positive direction.

“Ninety-five percent of the cure [of a difficult relationship] is awareness of self,” she said. “What triggers you? How do you feel when you’re around a difficult person? Now visualize how you would like to act and feel around that person, and imprint it in your mind.”

Anyone can become a human IED (improvised explosive device) if four basic needs aren’t met, she explained. These are the need to be right (Crowe does not advocate outright lying, but suggested it can be fruitful to allow an adversary “at least the possibility of rightness”), the need to be recognized, the need to be heard and the need to be liked and included.

“You’ve got to fill people’s buckets sometimes, so they don’t feel so empty,” she said.

There was more than a little DeGeneres-ity in some of Sandra Crowe’s enactments of workplace tension. Here she dons a number of props to illustrate her points. Sandra Crowe
There was more than a little DeGeneres-ity in some of Sandra Crowe’s enactments of workplace tension. Here she dons a number of props to illustrate her points.
All conversations include three components, Crowe continued: body language, words themselves and emotions. It is possible to sculpt positive interactions by being aware of all three.

“The take-home message today is ‘Move the conversation forward,’” she emphasized. “Avoid getting stuck. Learn to get past the ‘stuff’ in order to arrive at what you want to see happen, and when.”

Recognizing that stronger emotions tend to dominate in human interactions, Crowe recommended several strategies involving both mental and physical agility to defuse tension. It’s okay, for example, to stoop down to the level of a gloomy type—at least temporarily—to establish empathy. More often it can be beneficial to expand your emotional center—by actually mentally ordering yourself to “Expand!”—when under duress.

Crowe also suggested literally shaking off, like a dog wiggling out of wetness, emotional detritus. “It can relieve the sense of trauma and repression,” she said, demonstrating a physical shedding of unpleasantness. That witnesses might laugh at such behavior is only to the good in lowering tension, she added.

“And if that doesn’t work, go find someone you like.”

Crowe advised the audience to “reward behaviors you want to see repeated and inflict pain when you don’t.” The latter category can include ignoring, admonishing, removing privileges or simply saying no.

“One of the very challenging things is to have compassion for people. We all need to be less judgmental,” she said. She advocated humor as a means of bridging gaps and emphasized the need to be “solution-oriented—that’s the key to moving forward.”

Phrases like “Based on my observation…,” “What I’ve noticed is…” and “My perception is…” are void of judgment and invite rapprochement, she said.

She concluded with six recommendations for workplace harmony: neutralize conflicts when you sense them building, pay attention to body language for cues, listen and acknowledge the other person, move from emotion to logic, propose solutions and act.

“Focus on how you want to feel in your next interaction—that’s the way to get better outcomes in the future.”

Crowe’s talk, the last of four in the current Deputy Director for Management seminar series, can be viewed at http://videocast.nih.gov. NIHRecord Icon

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