Tips/Strategies for dealing with difficult people?
September 11, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I have a cantankerous and grouchy colleague at my place of work. I was wondering what tips and strategies the fair people of meta-filter have for dealing with difficult and obstructive people?
posted by waltz9 to Human Relations (34 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This isn't very satisfying in the short term, but: hyper-correct honeyed politeness. Respond calmly and properly to their work-related conversation, however badly phrased. Think of the conversation of a day nurse with a senile old crank of a patient -- you're paid to listen to real issues and take care of real problems, so you look for those, and the rest you just ignore.

The above is assuming that the person in question is not actually abusive, just abrasive and difficult. You don't give many details, so I don't know if this person is crossing any lines between being a dick and being an HR problem.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've learned not to feed these types any information, personal or professional. The less you give them, the less they have to ravage. Try to ignore them as much as possible.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2010

Can you share some examples of what the person does that you are finding difficult? 'Grouchy' and 'obstructive' can be two very different things, with very different approaches...
posted by abigredchair at 8:25 AM on September 11, 2010

I have come to believe the reason the old[er] become "cranky" and "difficult" and "obstructive" is because they don't feel they get the attention/respect from the younger people they feel they deserve.

Sincerely, the middle group treats the oldsters like irrelevant dinosaurs. Perhaps you could try patience and understanding and maybe that would help. Talking down to them like slightly moronic children is not going to help. Most people realize when they are being patronized.
posted by AuntieRuth at 8:32 AM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

You must work with my old boss. I always found that he reacted well to humor. Another way to put it is that he was easily disarmed by humor. Outsmarted, if you will.
posted by scratch at 8:36 AM on September 11, 2010

I agree with (both?) Jason and Laszio and in addition, don't feed the troll. Talk only about work.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:38 AM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: Well one event that I can think of in particular is that we have a project we are working on. We are doing some re-cabling in one of our server rooms. Since all the patch cables come in small plastic bags it creates a lot of waste to pick up. I told the guys that they could clean up all of the plastic after they had completed the job.So they left the plastic bags stacked in a pile off to the side away from the server to clean all up when they were done.

The next morning I come in to find my desk covered with tons of plastic bags from the re-cabling. When I confronted my colleague and said that that was unacceptable, he replied with "Well the guys need to clean up as they go along". I said thats fine but if you have a problem with how they are cleaning up you need to talk to me like an adult, not trash our office in a passive-aggressive fury. He just grumbled something and walked off after that
posted by waltz9 at 8:39 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think humor might be the key. When ever someone decides to play office shrink with me (like using a phrase "passive agressive fury"), I might also grumble and walk off.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2010

Refuse to communicate and cooperate with said person until your human resources department brings in a mediator. And if you don't have a human resources department, just make their work life a living hell until they just don't turn up one day :D
posted by foxy at 8:46 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

waltz9 said: "The next morning I come in to find my desk covered with tons of plastic bags from the re-cabling. "


I'd try asking why he felt it was necessary to waste his time and mine by doing that. Or maybe just ask him why he didn't through the rubbish in the bin and dumped it on my desk instead? He gets heard, and gets a chance to explain himself. If he can't explain without looking like an asshole, he might reconsider his behaviour in the future.
posted by Solomon at 8:57 AM on September 11, 2010

It's not the best approach, to be sure, but maybe the thing to learn from this is that there don't seem to be any trash cans in your office. Maybe putting one in or near the server room would help.
posted by rhizome at 9:03 AM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

That's not cantankerous and grouchy. That's being an ******.

I would have made HIM clean your desk off.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:11 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Smile and ignore him. He admits to throwing garbage on your desk, whatevers. Smile and tell him that was a poor way of asking for a change of policy and then stop. If he responds, smile and get back to whatever it is you are doing.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:13 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Will Felps, the guy who did the famous "bad apple" study was interviewed for this episode of This American Life, and he discusses the behaviors of the one person in the study who was able to reverse the downward morale spiral of the group. There was only one guy in his study who was able to coApparently the answer is to find someone who can act as a leader to "ask questions....engage all the team members and diffuse conflicts."
posted by tula at 9:13 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

cat....ack. You get the point.
posted by tula at 9:15 AM on September 11, 2010

I LOVE working with people like this! It means that by contrast I come off as the very embodiment of sweetness and light.

This is, in some ways, a good thing. He's doing his bit defining Dour and Grumpy. That frees up everyone else to define the other pole: happy and cheerful. Let him have his sulks, his moods, his moans of dismay.

He's making you look GOOD. You should thank him. The next time you have a three-minute-long hissy fit about some ultimately inconsequential issue, it's no big deal, because everyone is accustomed to Oscar the Grouch acting WORSE.

Refuse to communicate and cooperate with said person until your human resources department brings in a mediator. And if you don't have a human resources department, just make their work life a living hell until they just don't turn up one day :D

Um, no. That's some passive-aggressive bullshit right there. You're both adults. You don't need to call teacher in because Billy called you names. The Human Resources Department (a deeply Orwellian phrase, btw) can't be bothered with your petty drama and the last thing you want to do is become That Guy who runs to HR whenever his ego is bruised.

Laugh it off, laugh it up, let him be the Prince of Darkness if he wants to. Don't let his attitude infect you, but react to it appositely.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:16 AM on September 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I like the 'kill 'em with kindness' concept. A coworker of mine can be appallingly rude, snarky, sarcastic...etc. I used to want to give it right back but I realized that he will never change. So now whenever I have to be around him I am as nice as pie. Sometimes I have to fake it but in this case, I think fake nice is better than what would come out of my mouth if I said what was on my mind.
posted by morganannie at 9:41 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I figured that the best response is to stay calm and carry on and not sink into the dire mud where my colleague resides daily. Thanks to everyone for their responses thus far, it really helps.
posted by waltz9 at 9:45 AM on September 11, 2010

When I was a librarian in academia my job involved helping faculty members do their research. I loved working with the grouchy senior faculty...the more cantankerous the better. I made it my mission to tame the beasts and in every case I was successful. I never let them see me upset by anything they said or did. I used humor, mild sarcasm and whatever wit I could muster. I never acknowledged grouchiness...I treated the nastiest individual as a complete charmer. Eventually each one bowed to my will.
posted by tzuzie at 9:57 AM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Whenever you have to deal with him, go slow. Take pauses. Listen to him entirely and intently. Think about what you're going to say, phrase it exactly in your head, and then say it. Repeat. When he interrupts your thinking, let it go. Stop thinking about what you were going to say and focus back in on him, and listen to him entirely and intently. Ignore the thing he was talking about before he interrupted you. Respond only to the last thing he said.

After every interaction, think about his perspective and replay the conversation in your head. Think about how you could have been more useful to him without bending to the asshole parts of his yammering. On those occasions when he isn't an asshole, do everything he wants you to do.

Always remember that he's not an NPC in a computer game. He doesn't wake up every morning, twist his mustache and say, "How can I be a huge asshole today..." He's a human being with his own motives, and he thinks he's being more reasonable than you are. Always. So see what makes him think that, and respond to it without rewarding his more egregious behavior.
posted by Etrigan at 10:14 AM on September 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Check to see if you are the one with no/a different sense of humor. Is he really being mean and obstructive? Or does he enjoy being grumpy attitude guy but otherwise contribute positively to the job?

'Cause your example seems more like an amusing prank than a passive-agressive protest. Often, though, reacting poorly to some people's humor makes them defensive. They then act poorly in return and nobody wins.

He might be the guy who, when you ask him a favor, responds, "Hell no, you lazy son of a bitch, do your own work." And then does it for you. Because that guy is funny to some of us.

If not, well, at least it might help to think of him that way. Imagine before you deal with him, what the grouchiest response could possibly be. Get humor out of his predictability. It might not change him, but it will improve your reaction to him. Sometimes that's all you can ask for.
posted by ctmf at 10:47 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think rhizome makes a good point. I've found, in general, that coworkers really appreciate it when you think of how things you do might adversely affect them, and easy ways to make things run smoother for everybody. And I've also found this is a rare quality for people to have. For example, I'm the only person who does my job, but other people do things or hang out in the spaces I work in, and all the time I find my stuff moved around as well as odds-and-ends left in places I have to work... like one guy will bring in a change of shoes for work and leave them on top of something I use frequently. It doesn't look anything like a shoe storage area, and it's certainly not this guy's office space, but never did he ask me if it's okay for him to leave his shoes there.

So, while the guy you talk about handled his issue in a very juvenile manner, whoever he is clearly didn't appreciate coming in to piles of plastic bag garbage in his workspace. Maybe he's sick of people messing up his space in general. It's possible that he's just a grouch, and I've worked with unreasonable grouches too who really like to bitch when they're the ones who aren't paying attention to what's going on, but in the case you described I'm inclined to think he had a point.
posted by wondermouse at 10:48 AM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: I am perfectly fine owning up to the fact that the mess wasn't cleaned up right away and I should have just cleaned it up with the guys at the end of work shift. However I dont find rhizomes comment particularly helpful for long term strategies for dealing with a grouchy and childish person.
However, I think the way this individual chose to communicate their issue was needlessly childish and passive/aggressive. I am willing to give this guy benefit of the doubt, but I am not going to let him get away with trashing a shared workspace without letting him know that his actions are not an acceptable way to communicate an issue that he has.
posted by waltz9 at 10:58 AM on September 11, 2010

However I dont find rhizomes comment particularly helpful for long term strategies for dealing with a grouchy and childish person.

Right, but part of it is knowing what sets this guy off. Is it always a case where his workspace is trashed first?
posted by wondermouse at 11:02 AM on September 11, 2010

Best answer: Take the plastic, string it on a couple of pieces of telephone wire and use it as decorations around the office.

Seriously: go to this person and tell him something to the effect of, "Hey, I don't want you to have to get annoyed with me like you did the other day about the plastic. I'm definitely going to make sure that the guys clean up as they go along in the future, but if there's something bugging you, just tell me and I'll try to fix it as soon as possible." Be sincere about it because you DO want this guy to communicate with you in a reasonable way in the future.

As others have said, people can be extremely territorial about their space - sometimes rightfully and sometimes just because they're built that way - if this is so try to figure out his territory and avoid leaving stuff in it. If he's doing things like this frequently, try to make sure that others at your level see what is happening and make sure that your responses are professional and witnessed.

rhizome's idea of finding a trashcan for that area is similar to something I've done when I've been annoyed at coworkers. In my case it was squirt bottles that kept disappearing into other parts of the lab. So I made sure that we bought more squirt bottles and kept them filled. There was another guy in lab whose response to the problem had been to hide "his" squirt bottle and then get extremely angry when someone found it and used it.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:04 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Grouches just want a reaction.*

Figuring out what reaction they want can be tricky, so you need to actually listen to them, not their words so much as what they're on about. The good thing is once you figure out what area they want attention in, they rarely stray outside of that area.

Sometimes they just want attention of another person. Piling a bunch of crap on your desk could be that. Maybe. But he's wasting your time. Smile sweetly, say thanks "Thanks for collecting all of this for me Roger." and move on.

Sometimes that's how they communicate. Roger wanted them to pick up as they went. So instead of saying "Hey waltz9, I was unhappy with the state of the workplace this morning with all the crap lying around, can you do something about that?" he acted out. In that case smile sweetly, and in the most happy, offhanded and non-snarky way possible point out how you would have preferred he deal with it, tell him that you understand his problem and how you will address every aspect of his problem. Then smile and move on.

Or he might just be spreading misery because he's deeply unhappy. In this case just smile and move on. Don't be sympathetic, but don't let him kick your puppy. Smile and move on.

There's a chance he might be a shit-stirrer, trying to provoke office politics, get people demoted, fired, whatever. And grouches love to blame people. So document, smile, and move on. I'd document what he did in this case because it's definitely wasting both your and his work time and it's the kind of thing he could complain to someone else about. Don't proactively fight it if he starts gossiping, because everyone knows he's a grump, and not credible, but just in case someone starts asking questions you have evidence to back you up.

To sum up, if you give a correct reaction when one is required, and give no reaction at all to every other time he'll see you're not worth the effort.

Don't be too sweet. Some grumps see it as a challenge and want to tear it down.

*I say this as a recovering grouch.
posted by Ookseer at 12:33 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with the kindness strategy. I have a co-worker like that (I guess everyone does) but I decided that I would make a conscious effort to find something that I like/admire about that person. It helped maintain my sanity when I had to work with said co-worker, and eventually gave us something pleasant to talk about.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 2:07 PM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: Actually I correct my statement I didnt see rhizomes statement as a helpful at first, but now I see it as advising to be proactive to prevent further issues. Thanks for clarifying it wondermouse
posted by waltz9 at 5:12 PM on September 11, 2010

There's a great book called Coping With Difficult People. One important aspect of any difficult person, this book highlights, is that most difficult behavior (tantrums, snarkyness, sarcasm, complaining) is the result of frustration. For whatever reason, the individual is acting out because they generally don't feel like they have any other outlet. The book offers a lot of good information, way too much to get into here, so I advise purchasing it because it's likely that you'll encounter more difficult people beyond your current Grumpy Coworker.
posted by Jon-o at 7:09 PM on September 11, 2010

He might have been reacting to what he saw as extreme disrespect for him which was probably the way he viewed the bags being stacked where they were. People always have a reason for what they do. I think you violated his standards of neatness and he (over) reacted. People who are uncomfortable with clutter have to be accommodated or they will battle with those who upset them. The real problem here is that he saw what your guys did (and your allowing them to do it) as egregious and you saw it as trivial. You have to meet people where they are, not where you'd like them to be.
posted by Anitanola at 10:50 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a bit of sympathy for old grumpy.

Come on, lazy technicians should clean up their crap at the end of the shift. Really, why not?

Grumpy was being pretty rude for blaming you personally and acting out, bit I can see why he was annoyed.
posted by ovvl at 7:30 AM on September 12, 2010

I've worked with folks like your Grump before, and I've found the best way to deal with them is to avoid confrontation, be civil at all times, and use subtle humor to defuse tense situations. For example, had I found my desk covered in discarded plastic bags I might've asked the culprit, in all innocence, "Um, are you trying to tell me something here?" And when he retorted that the guys need to clean up as they go along, I would have agreed with him, promised to pass along the message, and then added something like "I'm sure glad you're never around my cat's litter box when it's been neglected." A subtle dig that really doesn't outright embarrass him, but suggests to him that his action might have been a bit extreme. I wouldn't tell him to deal with the situation "like an adult" or accuse him of passive-aggressive behavior. That's only going to get his hackles raised even higher. Yeah, what he did was childish and completely out of line, you know it, your co-workers know it, but this guy has probably been a cranky curmudgeon for a long time and confronting him isn't going to change his ways.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:08 AM on September 12, 2010

Some technicians, specialists, and trade-persons can sometimes be really lazy about maybe not cleaning their crap up behind them, if you allow them to get away with it. A cautionary tale.
posted by ovvl at 7:17 PM on September 12, 2010

Look, as a grumpy and childish guy who has done his share of server room recablings, I'm gonna sympathize with Mr. Freezy. Perhaps my loss can be your gain!

ovvl: "Grumpy was being pretty rude for blaming you personally and acting out, bit I can see why he was annoyed."

The OP is the person who told the crew they didn't have to clean up.

I'm not discounting the touchy-feely options above, in fact I've had to make use of them myself over the years. However, with the example provided it seems apparent what happened. While it may have been a bit too wild a response, there's no accounting for taste. I think we can all agree that maybe it wasn't such a triviality to simply throw the bags away (provided a trash receptacle). After all, here we are.
posted by rhizome at 7:36 PM on September 12, 2010

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