The Art of Change Skills for Life

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A Different Approach to Dealing with Bad Behavior

April 9, 2008 Dealing with Difficult People 1

I read an article recently on Advertising Age, written by Phil Johnson, titled ‘The Joys and Sorrows of Dealing With Clients,’ in which the author says that his dealings with one particular client moved him to go out and buy books on the topic, enough to fill a shelf in his office.The author divided people up into ‘nice’ and ‘mean,’ and offered the advice that one should stay away from the mean ones (difficult people). I want to comment here on the frame of reference that most people seem to have on difficult people, and on how that frame of reference determines their results in dealing with them.

Seems to me that most of the literature on the subject has the unfortunate habit of assigning negative labels and assumptions to people behaving badly, while largely holding those who wrestle with them unaccountable for how they go about it. In my opinion, that’s a double whammy against dealing with them effectively. Once you label someone as ‘toxic’ or ‘mean,’ or a ‘bully,’ your behavior in response to them will be organized around it.

So instead of connecting to your resourcefulness you wind up connecting to your reactions.

I think there is a better approach to bad behavior.

  • That’s to assume a positive intent behind it (human behavior is purposeful), and then approach dealing with it strategically.
  • This approach by the way is somewhat unique in the realm of written material on the topic of difficult people. Most go the route of labeling and then blaming ‘those’ people for what ‘you’ are dealing with.
  • Look it up for yourself, you may be amazed at how many people insist that there are actual toxic people in the world, and they’re at fault for all of our relationship problems. Well, maybe you won’t be amazed. Maybe you believe this too. I don’t. And I’ll tell you why.

Bad behavior, as far as I can tell (and I’ve done thousands of interviews to back up this view) is the result of a person’s lack of flexibility and resourcefulness in dealing with a changing and uncontrollable world. It’s what people do when they perceive that their good intentions are being thwarted by the behavior of others, and they run out of options for dealing with it. In this way, everyone becomes someone’s difficult person at least some of the time, by being pushy, negative, disruptive, vague, self absorbed, or completely withdrawn.
While I’m sure there are nice people in the world (I like to think I’m one, and clearly so are you), they often try being nice to people who either don’t know about or don’t care about nice behavior, and then, stymied and confused, wonder what the deal is with those ‘mean’ people.

I say nice is nice with nice people. With everyone else, something else is needed.
The only exceptions I make to this view are people who have substance abuse problems (and thus develop a multiple personality of sorts) or are in some other way truly mentally disturbed (manic depressive, narcissistic, etc.) In such cases, most of us aren’t equipped with the time, interest or skills to interact with them, none of the books on that author’s shelf (or the 38 different books he found on Amazon that address the subject of difficult people) really apply, and the best choice is to get as far away as fast as possible.

The complete Advertising Age article is here.

Let me know what works, or doesn’t work for you when dealing not with nice people, but with “everyone else”.

Be Well,

Dr. Rick

One Response

  1. Kell says:

    Global applications! 🙂

    I love seeing this in print… that you should assume positive intent. I like to try and imagine how the other person would explain their own intentions if they had to. Justified and borderline glowing would be my guess!

    It reminded me of one time when I was a kid in the 70s and I overheard my parents and a bunch of other grown-ups talking about “the Russians”. Very bad people, those Russians! And I piped in with something like, “But don’t you think they’re just like us? Sitting around talking about how bad we are?” I was asked why I wasn’t out playing with the other children. But don’t you think a little global application of assuming positive intent could be a good thing?

    Thanks for the great blog!

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