Are you looking for an effective way to relieve stress and do you know what more often than not causes stress?
Hint, what causes a knot in your stomach more often? Work or Difficult People?
I recently surveyed my 40k+ Twitter followers and ten linkedIn Groups having to do with leadership, management and HR with the following question:
What causes more stress and burnout?
- Too much work
- Dealing with difficult people
The result with approximately 150 responses was:
- Too much work – 25%
- Dealing with difficult people – 75%
I was thinking that was pretty good evidence for “Dealing with difficult people” as a greater cause of stress and burnout, when one of my colleagues told me that the survey was incomplete.
I asked him why and he smiled with a look that meant he was about to deliver a “gotcha!”
He replied, “I’m guessing that difficult people didn’t take the survey, because few people get the better of them and they probably don’t find people to be difficult at all. So instead they would probably reply that ‘Too much work’ stressed them out more. In fact, one of the reasons they act so difficult is to get out of having to do work that’s too hard or that they don’t want to do.”
I smiled in return, because his “gotcha!” had landed.
However if you are reading this, you’re more likely to be a person who would have answered “Dealing with difficult people” as the greater cause of your stress and burnout; so let’s get a handle on why that may be and more importantly what you can do about it.
How do you identify difficult people?
It’s actually pretty simple. You know a person is difficult when just the mention of his or her name or seeing their name on an incoming email before you even open it or seeing that you received a text or voice message from them, puts a knot in your stomach. And over time, it’s a very big knot.
How do difficult people stress you out?
If you’re a decent and fairly rational person, it’s likely that someone that causes you stress is a person that pushes into a very angry part of your personality and it takes nearly all of your energy to keep a lid on wanting to strike back at him or her.
One of the characteristics that nearly all difficult people have – from the bullies, know-it-alls and blamers to the whiners, excuse makers and drama kings or queens – is that when they’re upset and aim at you, they first frustrate, then exasperate, then anger, then infuriate and then if they escalate to being outrageous, they enrage you. When they do that they have successfully triggered a part of your emotional brain called the amygdala to “hijack” you away from your calmer and more rational brain and instead pushed you flush into your primitive “fight or flight” brain. If “fight or flight” is not an option, you freeze like a deer in the headlights of Attila the Hun and that causes you stress and then distress. Over time it leads to “burnout.”
In essence they have provoked you into feeling out of control, becoming immersed in your rage and doing everything you can to not hostilely strike back at them. Although acting on your rage might feel ever so wonderful like an emotional high colonic, the sense of guilt,shame and abject horror at yourself for so badly losing control will also add to your stress and lead to burnout. So what you do instead is suck it in and take poor care of yourself by eating poorly, drinking excessively and/or not exercising.
By the way, one of the reasons you often back down from confrontations with such people is because if you take an argument one step too far, you are likely to unleash in them such offensive behavior (because they don’t have a problem with going too far to make their point) that either they will injure you or it will provoke you to retaliate with such uncontrollable rage and violence which will make you even more upset and stressed.
What to do
First is to identify who they are ahead of time and when you’re about to interact with them never expect them to not act in their difficult way if asked to do something they don’t want to do or if they are pushing you to do something that is unreasonable, unrealistic that you don’t want to do.
When you’re about to have that interaction, hold some of yourself back so that you are not blindsided. It’s when you’re blindsided and off balance that they instinctively go for your jugular vein.
And when they resort to trying to provoke you during your conversation, don’t react but instead actually say to yourself, “Darn, just like clockwork, there they go again” (and if it makes you chuckle, don’t show that to them as it will only infuriate them). At that point, instead of reacting defensively or trying to get away from them, look intently into their eyes and pause after they stop talking and wait until they make another comment. That will communicate to them that their effort to manipulate you through their difficult behavior hasn’t worked. They may even get irritated and blurt something even more provocative to see if they can trigger you into being upset and then losing your calm as you try to keep a lid on your reaction.
They may even say during your pause, “What!?” or “Hey, how come you’re not saying anything!?” or something else, all aimed a pushing you off balance.
After that, there are a variety of responses you might try including any of the following:
“I was having difficulty knowing what to respond to, because you sounded so frustrated and upset, that I had trouble focusing. Would you please run by me what you’re asking or wanting me to do?”
“All I could make from what you said is that you’re frustrated or upset about something and I don’t want to miss what that was. Could you run by me specifically what’s frustrating or upsetting you and what you’d like me to do about it?”
“What you just said was too important for me to misunderstand or get wrong a single thing you said. So I need to check that what I heard is what you said. What I heard you say is then repeat back to them as close as you can “word for word” what they said” speaking in a calm and measured tone.” Telling them what they said is “important” will be flattering and disarming and showing humility (as in baring your neck to an enemy) by not wanting to incorrectly hear what they said will further deescalate the situation. Most of all, by doing this, you will cause them to have to listen to you, which will cause them to slow down and further lessen their crazy making behavior.
Following this, there is a better chance you will be able to have a more rational conversation with them.
A benefit from this is that having a process for dealing with such types will enable you to not avoid them in the future, something which only adds to stress. Furthermore, it will give you a sense of personal effectiveness and mastery that is likely to become the skill that gives you a good deal of self-respect and self-esteem. That’s because you’re no longer feeling guilty or ashamed for not dealing with the situations.
Perhaps best of all, knowing how to deal with difficult people means never having to avoid anyone again.
- “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone(link is external) – this is about “listening into” people that results in their opening up to you. On special for $1.99 at Kindle for December, 2015.
- Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life(link is external) – this is about “leaning into” people’s irrationality that results in disarming them and being able to have a rational conversation with you. On special for $1.99 at Kindle for December, 2015.