HR Management & Compliance

Bambi vs. Godzilla—Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace

Difficult people are everywhere, says psychologist Bruce Christopher. There are whiners, liars, know-it-alls, condescenders, busybodies, lazy-bones, and exploders—never mind those who are “always right.”

Our Godzillas can be our coworkers, customers, supervisors, neighbors, and even family members, says psychologist Bruce Christopher, who offered his tips at the recent Society for Human Resource Management’s Annual Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas.

The main concern with difficult people is that they are energy-suckers, says Christopher, and we can burn out by trying to deal with them. Fortunately, he adds, you can deal by using the “Surprise Effect.”


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Christopher offers this scenario:

You are sitting in a dental office reception room waiting calmly for your appointment. A well-dressed, professional-looking man walks into the waiting area, strolls up to the receptionist and says, “Good afternoon, my name is Mr. Jones. I am here for my three o’clock appointment.” The receptionist greets him warmly, looks down into her scheduling book, turns the page, looks up, and says, “Mr. Jones, I can see here that your appointment is for next Thursday at three o’clock, not today.”

“What?!” he explodes, “Do you think I’m incompetent and don’t know how to read a calendar? What is your name young lady? I’m going to talk to the doctor about you and your employment!”

Why would this man behave this way? Because, says Christopher, it works.

Mr. Jones most likely figured out as a child that a way to handle conflict and have his needs met is by throwing a temper-tantrum, says Christopher. He is an “exploder.”
You may recall talking to exploders in your life and pointing out that they are yelling at you. “I am not yelling!” they may shout as their volume escalates even more.

How do we deal with these difficult personality types? You can deal with them by employing the technique Christopher calls “The Surprise Effect.” The Surprise Effect means four things, Christopher says. You:

  • Do the exact opposite of what people expect you to do.
  • Take control of your own responses.
  • Be proactive with people, and not reactive.
  • Interrupt frustrating and dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

“Typically, people respond to exploders by being defensive, but what if instead of buying into the expected argument, I could rescript my own responses and do something totally unexpected and unanticipated? That would result in a different outcome,” says Christopher.


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Exploders are used to having people either explode back, defend, or crumble in the face of the exploder’s emotional outbursts. Therefore, taking a notebook to write down all of their concerns is a Surprise Effect for them—having someone write down everything that is bothering you is the ultimate in attention. And it interrupts the pattern: How can one explode when you are taking notes on them?

By employing the Surprise Effect, you stay centered and balanced, while your antagonist will lose center and balance.

For example, right in the middle of your speech, someone yells out, “You know, you are really full of bull!” The expected response for most of us might be to become defensive, or worse yet, react and yell back, “Well, you are too, buddy!”

But imagine using a Surprise Effect to do the exact opposite of what your rival expects you to do. Perhaps you could use humor and say, “That is an amazing insight. Most people take months to reach that conclusion, you came to it in only 45 minutes.” This is actually a true story, says Christopher, and it worked wonderfully. Everyone laughed and the dialogue opened up to a more receptive audience.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, three difficult-person scenarios from Christopher, plus an introduction to Employee Retention and Satisfaction: How to Attract, Retain, and Engage the Best Talent at Your Organization.