Of all the people you work with, who would you least like to be stranded alone with on a desert island? While your worst nightmare is an unlikely scenario, problem people are permanent workplace fixtures, leaving you nowhere to run. Learning some emotional survival skills can help ease the pain of close encounters you can't avoid.

Every office has its share of difficult people who exhibit any number of annoying behaviors. The troublemakers can be loud and arrogant, argumentative or uncommunicative. Some are chronic complainers, some seem incapable of making even the smallest decision and some promise to do everything but end up doing nothing. Regardless of the type of behavior or the person's position (boss, colleague or subordinate), difficult people all have one thing in common: the ability to unnerve us and hit our hot buttons. When you sit down to work with difficult people, your antennae go on full alert because you instinctively know how they are going to respond to a given situation. You've been down this road before.

There are several psychological truths about working with difficult people. First off, don't expect them to radically change their personalities, because they won't. You can help to modify their behavior but doing so will require a commitment of time and energy. Second, we perceive people as difficult because they elicit an emotional reaction in us. Thus, unless you can learn to control that emotional reaction, you have little chance of altering the relationship. Finally, modifying your behavior to adapt to the behavior of a difficult person is no easy task. You need to be flexible, patient, clever and intuitive.

Financial managers tend to be task-driven and result-oriented. Therefore, difficult people are about as welcome at their table as Typhoid Mary. Nonetheless, controllers are expected to foster productive working relationships and handle the people problems as well as the numbers problems.

Attitude Adjustments

Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner, authors of Dealing With People You Can't Stand, state that all behaviors have a purpose or intent, and when intents are thwarted, people can become difficult. They categorize intents into four general groups: getting a task done, getting a task done right, getting along with people and getting appreciation from people. When these intents meet a roadblock, people tend to overreact and behavior becomes either controlling, perfectionistic, approval seeking or attention seeking. Brinkman and Kirschner have identified 10 difficult personalities and the resulting difficult behavior. But remember, you can't control or alter a bad working relationship until you are prepared to make some adjustments in your attitude and adopt some communication skills.

Assume positive intent. According to Dr. Kirschner, “Assuming positive intent empowers you to conduct yourself in such a way that you can bring out the best in other people. You should assume that behind all difficult behavior there is the intent to either get it done, get it right, get along, get appreciated or a combination of intents. Even if the intent isn't true, you can still get a good response and create rapport.”

Mentally dissociate yourself from the person and the problem. When engaged in an uncomfortable encounter, Kirschner suggests that you imagine yourself as a third-party observer, watching from a distance, in order “to gain perspective and change your point of view.”

Model successful communicators. When face-to-face with your difficult person, having a role model helps. “Maybe,” suggests Kirschner, “that role model is you. Think of a time when you have behaved in a way that you really admire. Ask yourself, 'What did I do then?'” Or perhaps you know someone in your company that doesn't seem to have much of a problem getting along with your difficult person; find out the secrets of that successful arrangement. At times even a famous and/or fictional model works, whether the model is Dirty Harry or Mother Teresa.

Blend. Find common ground with difficult people and adapt to their communication style. Dr. Brinkman says that blending “reduces the differences between people and allows us to get into the same ballpark with them. If somebody is in a get-it-done mode, blending with that person means getting to the point as quickly as possible, setting time frames, etc.” Two cautionary notes: Don't blend with words or actions to the extent that you appear to be ridiculing a person and never emulate hostile gestures or words.

Backtrack and clarify. Backtracking means giving verbal feedback that uses some of the identical words and terminology that your difficult person uses. Says Brinkman, “If I take your words and translate them into what I think you are saying, then I run the risk of you thinking that you are not fully understood.” Thus, statements like, “What you are really telling me is ...” may not go over too well with a difficult person. When reiterating a person's views, use their exact words. When you are confused about what difficult people are trying to convey, ask open-ended questions to let them clarify, in their own words, what they are telling you.

Difficult people sometimes need to be interrupted. The general strategy for interrupting, advises Brinkman, is to say the person's name a few times, apologize for interrupting and explain why you interrupted. A polite interruption goes something like this: “Frank, Frank. Excuse me for interrupting you, but I just wanted to be sure I understand. ...”

The 10 Most Unwanted List

The following behaviors and how to cope with each were developed by Dr. Brinkman and Dr. Kirschner.

  1. Tanks. They are pushy and aggressive because they want to get things done. Some are loud and angry while others are quiet and intense. Attacks by Tanks usually feel personal, even though they usually aren't, and they evoke very emotional reactions. When bombarded by a Tank, some people will meet anger with anger — not good since that only escalates the battle. Impatient Tanks don't want to hear lots of excuses and strong defensive behavior will be met with a greater offense. As Brinkman and Kirschner put it, “If a Tank says you're a genetic mistake, it's futile to offer your mother's prenatal records.”

Action Plan: Stay cool, look the Tank in the eye and hold your ground. If the attack is short and made by an irrational boss, you may choose to wait it out and say something like, “If that's all, I'm going to get back to work,” and then make a calm exit. If the situation demands a response, you can politely interrupt, backtrack the main points of the attack and briefly give your point of view by saying, “The way I see it ...” You'll rarely win a war of words with Tanks, but you can gain their respect with an assertive, yet controlled, demeanor.

  • Snipers. They come in two varieties, friendly and unfriendly, but both use sarcastic comments to embarrass you. Unfriendly Snipers want to get things done and feel thwarted when something or somebody gets in their way. They may be jealous of you or even hold a grudge against you. Friendly Snipers just want to be appreciated at work, and they make rude comments to get attention. For example, as you start a staff meeting, you hear a back-row Sniper mutter, “Here's Mack [referring to you] in another custom-made suit that cost less than $100.”

    Action Plan: Unfriendly Snipers need to be pulled out of hiding. At the meeting, you should stop in midsentence and say to the Sniper, “I heard you say [backtrack the Sniper's suit comment]. When you say that, what are you really trying to say?” Your voice should convey curiosity, even amusement, but should not convey anger or sarcasm. Friendly Snipers, on the other hand, think they are making points at the office with their playful, teasing remarks. Don't put the spotlight on them in public but meet in private to let them know that you don't find their humor very amusing.

  • Know-It-Alls. Their behavioral intent is to get things done and they know exactly how to do everything. Their endless arguments and dedication to detail can drive you crazy. Because Know-It-Alls need to be right, they want to control all situations and view alternative ideas as a challenge to their knowledge and abilities. For the most part, they are very smart and competent, which makes it even harder to get them to listen to your point of view.

    Action Plan: Know-It-Alls won't listen to you until they are sure you understand their brilliant thinking. You'll have to repeat their ideas out loud (backtracking) or they will keep telling you the same thing over and over again. Because opposing points of view are a threat to Know-It-Alls, you may want to present your thoughts in an indirect manner by saying something like, “Perhaps we might consider ...” Brinkman and Kirschner say that extreme patience is vital when dealing with Know-It-Alls, and “you may have to take your antinausea pills before talking to them.”

  • Think-They-Know-It-Alls. They want attention and appreciation, which is why they are eager to offer opinions. They know just enough about a subject to speak up, but oftentimes their logic is faulty, and they are prone to exaggerations and half-truths. When you know their position is weak, it's tempting to quickly confront them and put an end to their ramblings. Public humiliation, however, is not a good idea. When shunned and dismissed, Think-They-Know-It-Alls will become stressed out and just try harder to be recognized.

    Action Plan: Assume positive intent (that they really want to help solve a problem) and backtrack a good comment when they make one. When they get out of hand, however, you have to stop them. For example, if Mary is prone to generalizations (“Everybody agrees that this method ...”), then ask her, “Who specifically ...?” When you ask for specific back-up information, Think-They-Know-It-Alls may recede into the background. They want you to like them more than they want you to like their ideas. If you treat them with respect and pay attention to their good ideas, they may lessen their grandstanding behavior.

  • Grenades. Tanks explode to get something done, but Grenades explode because they aren't getting respect and approval. They seem to save up their anger and their blowups are unpredictable. Even though they regret the outbursts, Grenades just can't seem to prevent them.

    Action Plan: When Grenades detonate, you have to stay calm and take control of the situation. You'll have to get their attention by interrupting the tantrum and may have to raise your voice so they will hear you. Show concern as you try to calm them down. Backtrack so they know you are listening. It's best to allow a cooling-off period before having a discussion to resolve the Grenade's problem. The important issue: find out what is pulling out the Grenade's pin so you can prevent future explosions.

  • Yes People. They overcommit because they can't say no, and they can't say no because they want to get along with everyone in the office. When the work doesn't get done and co-workers get angry, Yes People feel terrible and then become resentful because everyone expects so much from them.

    Action Plan: You need to get commitments you can count on and that won't happen unless you develop an open, honest line of communication. Yes People are usually disorganized and poor planners so help them manage their time and set realistic goals. When they show improvement, give them positive feedback.

  • Maybe People. Like the Yes People, Maybe People want approval, and they avoid disapproval by avoiding decisions. Decisions mean that somebody wins and somebody loses, and Maybe People don't want to be responsible for upsetting anyone. In addition, they don't want to be blamed for a bad decision.

    Action Plan: Chronic procrastinators, Maybe People need to devise a system for making decisions and then need to be motivated to use the system. When helping them, you need to uncover the key barriers that make them indecisive without criticizing or bullying them.

  • Nothing People. Very little feedback, verbal or nonverbal; that's the mark of Nothing People. They come in two types: the timid person whose intent is to get along and the perfectionistic person who wants to get the work done right but can't convince everyone to follow a prescribed course of action. The get-along types clam up because they want to avoid conflict. The perfectionist types figure that nobody recognizes their perfect plan so they let everyone else sail the ship.

    Action Plan: You are at a dead end unless you can get Nothing People to talk. Ask open-ended questions like, “What do you think is a good way to proceed?” When Nothing People finally speak, make sure they know you are listening. Lean forward, appear interested, utter an occasional, “Uh-huh,” and repeat some of their statements.

  • No People. Brinkman and Kirschner sum them up: “More deadly to morale than a speeding bullet, more powerful than hope, able to defeat big ideas with a single syllable.” They are task-focused and are the standard bearers for perfectionism. As such, they always zero in on why plans won't work and why mistakes are inevitable.

    Action Plan: Push them to become more positive and they will only become more negative. Thus, assume positive intent (they want to get a job done right) and try not to let them drag you down. View them as an early warning system and pick through their criticisms to see if any have merit. You might try challenging them: “You are right, Marsha. This is a hopeless situation. Nobody can solve it — not even you” (maybe Marsha will accept the challenge).

  • Whiners. Their bag of woes is overflowing. Like the No People, Whiners want to get everything done right but nothing ever turns out as well as it should. Since they feel hopeless to change anything, they just get better and better at complaining.

    Action Plan: Grit your teeth and listen to them. If you can identify what's ailing them, you can try to find solutions. Get them to be definitive about complaints and ask specific questions to resolve problems: “What do you need to improve the situation?” If you turn the Whiner into a problem solver, the feeling of hopelessness should diminish.

  • When All Else Fails

    You're stuck with the difficult person. You aren't about to leave your job and neither is the difficult person. You think you have made an admirable effort to communicate, to be flexible and patient, but nothing works; it's hopeless. Dr. Brinkman says, “Try again, because usually we think we are at that point way before we've tried everything.”

    Most importantly, continue to make attitude adjustments so the difficult person doesn't continually throw you off stride. Kirschner says that a little attitudinal humor can go a long way. Try imagining a scenario worse than working with the difficult person, like “I could be handcuffed to this person and stranded on a desert island.” Or use the Alan Kirshner go-beyond technique (named after Rick Kirschner's father): “100 years from now, what difference will any of this make?”