Dealing With Difficult People – Behind Your Back

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Dealing With Difficult People – Behind Your Back

September 14, 2009 Dealing with Difficult People Life Skills Persuasion 9

BehindYourBackThere’s an old saying that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.  But in the compressed world we live in, I think it may not be true anymore.  Because if people are talking about you behind your back, it could undermine your authority, derail your best efforts, and present you with challenges down the road when people who don’t know any better buy into whatever is being said about you, without ever giving you a chance.  Today’s post is about dealing with people talking you down behind your back.

Occasionally, you hear a report that “so and so” said “such and such” about you. The question is, who’s talking you down in this scenario?   Is it the “so and so,” or the person who’s telling you this is so?    Sometimes informants are really the culprits in disguise.  They’re hiding in plain sight, and framing other people with a comment taken out of context.  They may even sharpen it to a point and then plunge it into your chest with an innocent, “Did you hear what `so and so’ said about you?”

If the reason that you’re being told about it by this particular informant somehow escapes you, turn on the searchlight with your questions.  Ask “Does ‘so and so’ know that you are telling me this?” If the answer is “No,” then tell the informant that you’ll only discuss this further with all parties involved  You, the accused, and the informant. “Let’s go talk to `so and so together.’ That will end it right then and there, as the informant seeks to get away from the bright searchlight of your questions.

Suppose, however, that your informant is a trusted confidant who you can count on for reliable information. In that case, drop what you’re doing and go directly to the possible culprit. Tell them what you’ve heard, and ask if it’s true, because even a reliable source can get it wrong. If the supposed culprit asks “Who told you that?” remember to protect the identity of your source, and answer the question by restating the original question. “Actually, that’s not the question. I’m asking you, did you say this about me?”

The strategy with covert operators, whether it’s being done to you in quotes, around you or behind your back, is to bring the behavior out into the open by making the person doing it uncomfortable. If the person who you firmly believe is doing this denies having said anything, you’d be well advised to let it go, since their discomfort, rather than a confession, is what you are after, and your asking them directly has already gotten that result. Should you hear about it again, repeat the process, and again after that.  After a few times, the person realizes their cover is blown and the behavior either finds a new expression or is extinguished by your consistent and effective response.

I’d love it if you brought your comments out in the open.  Now, or at any time.

Be well,



9 Responses

  1. Dealing With Difficult People ? Behind Your Back

  2. Angela DeFinis says:

    Interesting post, Rick. Everyone experiences this at some point in their lives. I find that a slight twist to your confrontation approach works well. Instead of responding to the culprit with blunt accusations, I “kill them with kindness.” For instance, I might preface my accusation with an explanation about how much of a valued team member they are and how their opinion is vital for our success. This softens them up so they” be receptive as opposed to defensive. Then state that you’ve heard their criticism from others and you wanted to discuss it directly with the source in hopes of achieving a better understanding.

    Angela DeFinis

  3. Dr. K says:

    Thanks, Angela, for your comment and idea!

    I think I’ve not been clear enough in my post about this, as I’ve never recommended blunt accusations.

    In fact, accusations, in my experience, are completely counter productive. What I’m suggesting instead is that you tell the person what you’ve heard and ask if it’s true. The confrontation is a gentle one, because it happens inside the person… they are only confronted with their own words if they must measure them against the truth of whether they’ve said them.

    Killing ‘them’ with kindness is a useful approach for some people if you know how to do it in a healthy way. For some, however, it can feed into a whole range of unhealthy internal responses, such as feelings of subjugating one’s identity, manipulated or coerced, or cognitive dissonance where you’re saying one thing and feeling another. My approach is designed to bypass this possibility. I’ve worked with too many people who developed actual health problems because the positive front on the outside was tearing them apart on the inside. The approach I’ve offered allows a person to impact the other person’s behavior with the least amount of effort and difficulty.

    That said, if it works for you, then by all means do what works. Sounds like you’ve got the internal resources to do this with ease and in good health.

    Best wishes,

  4. Gregg Tilles says:

    What’s with this Rick guy always telling us how to deal with people?
    Anyone else here feel the same?
    haha, just kidding Rick…I’d never talk about you on your own site…just other people’s sites!
    Nice post Thanks.

  5. Dr. K says:

    Thanks for the comment and for being so out in the open about it Gregg!  Good to see you here, hope you come back for more!

    best wishes

  6. Dr. K’s blog – Dealing With Difficult People ? Behind Your Back

  7. Susanna says:

    Good article. Question though about a ‘group’ of people who have fallen to silence with the individual they are speaking about. They whisper and giggle in tight clusters and then quickly disband when the person they are speaking about appears. How do you address such ‘behavior’ with a group of people?

    • @Susanna,
      Good question! This is another case where calling out the behavior is likely to yield a better result than suffering in silence. And since it’s a group behavior, there’s a feedback opportunity in it. (When you have a problem with one or two people, that’s pretty normal. When it’s everyone but you that’s called feedback.)

      If this is happening to you, you have to find a situation where the group is together, and get their attention. Say what you’ve observed, and then ask what it’s all about. “If there’s something you have to say about me, I would like to think you have the integrity and courage to say it to my face.” Using words like integrity and courage makes this a challenge to their character. If they don’t rise to the moment, they indict themselves in their own minds. If you can get them to talk., don’t be defensive. Instead, say ‘Tell me more,’ and keep drawing them out until their behavior makes sense to you. ONly then can you ask for a better future.

      Thanks for your question!
      Best wishes,

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