11 Strategies Teachers Can Use to Deal With Difficult Adults

Posted
3/9/2021
Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Wouldn't you like to never talk to or be around certain people ever again? Your brain wants to tell your mouth so many things, but as an educator, you need to show unbelievable restraint.

In the job you get to experience the joy of being able to work with some amazing people…. And unfortunately, you may also be required to work or be around difficult people every day.

If you have spent much time watching Jerry Seinfeld episodes, you will remember Jerry has a problem with many of the people he encounters. You may remember characters with specific communication idiosyncrasies such as the "close-talker" … the Soup Nazi … Kramer Cosmos' crazy doorway entries … Elaine's famous phrase, "Yada, Yada, Yada" … and who can forget the infamous mailmen, Jerry's nemesis, "Newman."

Each of these characters go in and out of Jerry's life and he must communicate with them or choose to ignore them. All these years later, these scenes have become culturally iconic, leaving behind unforgettable catch phrases we use every day. It's these very characters and the way Jerry handles these interactions that make the show an all-time favorite.

In the end, Jerry pays the price for how he handles himself, finding himself in jail for not taking action when he should have stepped up and been a good Samaritan.

Though all these difficult characters from Seinfeld might remind us of a few people we know in our lives, as educators we must remain the consummate professionals at all times. Since you don't really have the option to simply not deal with difficult people at all, you're going to need some strategies for positive and productive communication when you are faced with the Newmans and close-talkers in your own life.

As someone has been working in education for decades, you might not be surprised to find that these strategies are derived from working with children. What might surprise you, though, is how well they work on adults too.

1 - Taking the High Road

Of course, the saying, "I am taking the high road," refers to the ability for a person to avoid getting into an argument or conduct themselves on the same perceived lower level of communication than that other person.

The person wants to avoid following the same train of thought or mindset as someone who might be negative or destructive, or intentionally opposing our own thinking. It also refers to someone who is reframing an incident to the positive, and refraining from arguing, fighting, or taking a negative stance on an issue.

For example, if a parent is continually getting upset with a teacher because they feel like the teacher is not supporting their child. Even though there were repeated attempts by the teacher to remedy the problem, the teacher refrains from getting defensive. Some teachers fall into this trap and begin to argue with the parent. Emails, conversations, and more can potentially go back and forth with accusations.

If the teacher takes the "higher road," they choose to not argue about the past, they continue to empathize with the parent and ask how they can further support the child in the future. Taking the higher road doesn't mean the educator ignores the past, it simply helps them stay out of the controversy and work towards a solution. If you are a solution-based educator, taking the high road comes naturally.

2 - Treating Negativity Like a Sickness

If we treat negativity or a person who is extremely difficult to be around like a sickness, we can keep ourselves well and stay on a positive track in life. We obviously can't avoid all negative people in our lives, but if our goal is to be happy and live a positive life, we must spend less time around these types of people. My goal has been to surround myself with positive and productive people and eliminate and reduce the negative people.

If you have to work with negative people, limit the time you are around them. Remember it is about you and your mental health. If you hang around negative people all the time, you will probably tend to become more negative as well. Negativity can best be defined as a sickness.

Combating negativity with positivity is one strategy. In the book, Happiness, by James Achor, he states that it takes nearly three positive comments to combat one negative comment. Using this strategy may work with your friends and family members by modeling positive language and comments. If it is unsuccessful, you may have to treat the relationships like a sickness and limit your time around them.

If you have negative or difficult friends, you may want to reevaluate why you are around them. It may seem arduous to end those types of relationships, but it is necessary for your own mental health. If you have negative family members, you may want to do the same...limit your time with them!

3 - Giving Glass

This powerful and easy strategy from the philosophy, High Trust Psychology, is a distraction technique to derail a person's negative or destructive thought process. The term "giving glass" refers to giving a person a different lens or glass to look through instead of perseverating on the current negative thinking.

Adults, like students, can get into a negative or destructive thought process. This thought cycle, or "spinning," can continue over and over again leading to more negative thoughts and even actions. Disrupting this cycle can be done by disrupting the pattern. We can disrupt the pattern by recognizing that the person is spinning and try to change the thought process.

When "giving glass" to a student, we can many times disrupt the pattern by starting a conversation with them on a topic totally unrelated to the person's negative thought cycle. The topic can be a topic that you know the person is interested in or it can be something funny or crazy. As an adult working with students with extreme behaviors, I knew after working with these kids their interests and hobbies. As a principal, I recently worked with a student who had extreme behaviors and showing him puppy videos on YouTube helped him calm down and stop spinning. I have even started doing jumping jacks in my office with students who were spinning or throwing a tantrum. Doing something crazy and out of the ordinary startles the student and disrupts their pattern of thinking.

With adults, this can work in the same manner. We can try to change the topic of conversation and get the person to calm down or not continue destructive or negative talk. The key is to not placate the person, but to actually show compassion when using this strategy. For those adults that are unable to break this thought process and the pattern continues routinely, more professional support such as cognitive behavior therapy may be a solution.

Breaking a person's OODA loop is similar to "giving glass." The OODA loop is when a person is hyper focused on doing something: they observe, orient themselves, make a decision, and then act. This cycle has been associated with stopping criminals by law enforcement. The goal of a policeman is to try to disrupt the OODA loop of a criminal before they follow through with the action. Understanding our own OODA Loop helps us understand other people's as well.

4 - Replacement Behavior

Having an honest conversation with someone you have to work with, a friend, or a family member, about something they do or say that drives you nuts can be difficult. By not addressing it, you may find it difficult to be around this person.

You may have a friend who continually cusses around you. This may be something that you find repulsive and hard to be around. Deciding to continue this friendship can be a big decision; you may address it with this person and offer a replacement behavior. For example, if your friend continues to use the "f" word around you and you dislike this, ask them if they can use another word. In essence, you are giving a suggestion to replace the behavior with one that is more desired or tolerable.

This may seem simplistic, but if there is truly respect between you and your friend, they will use the replacement behavior when they are around you. We teach placement behaviors with students in our classrooms routinely, and it can also work with adults.

5 - Addressing it Honestly

Too many people avoid confrontation or have the inability to have hard conversations with adults in their life. Practicing these conversations can be the first step in addressing issues with difficult people, and doing so honestly. Please understand we must be reflective with our own words and actions and take into account that if we address these difficult behaviors with someone else, it may get worse before it gets better.

Getting your guts up to tell someone they are difficult to be around or repulsive behaviors can be similar to poking your eyes with needles. Again, if you want this relationship or behavior to continue, addressing it openly and honestly can be the first step.

Decide on the words you want to use that address the behaviors. Using phrases with "I statements" can be a good start to the conversation. Using "you" statements such as, "You made me feel…," can be considered accusatory and the other person most likely has a natural feeling of being defensive. An "I statement" example can look similar to this phrase, "I feel upset when sarcasm is used by teachers to control students' behavior."

6 - Scenario Based Conversations

When addressing difficult people, using scenario based discussions may be the best way to address uncomfortable or worrisome situations. Scenarios use other people as characters in a scenario or story based on some behavior that the difficult person may be exhibiting.

Discussion around these stories may be difficult at first, but hopefully self-reflection will be part of the process. Using yourself as a character or relating personally to the scenario can help support the overall effectiveness of this strategy. Setting the stage for the story or scenario can be difficult at first, but honesty and reflection play the key role in this strategy.

Helping the difficult person connect their behaviors to the scenario based story can be patronizing, but again, building trust between you and the other person essential. If they are not making the connection you are clearly describing, you may have to state the lesson learned directly and decide if this person is going to understand.

You obviously can't change the behavior of another person, but you can alter how they act around you. You may have to decide what you are willing to compromise or live with without making a drastic change to your own moral code.

7 - Scheduled Conversations

When dealing with difficult people, you may want to schedule time during the day in order to communicate. This has many benefits though it sounds righteous in nature, but setting a time to talk and be around difficult people sets explicit boundaries for yourself and others.

Limiting the time around someone can help your overall mindset and happiness. There are times where you will need to be around difficult people for your job, social setting, or even family. The time you allot is determined by the priorities in your life as you will only know how much time is enough.

Another way of limiting conversation is scheduling time with difficult people like a meeting. For example, "I have time to call you from 4:00-4:15 PM today, as I have meetings all day and then another commitment after that." Before 4:00 PM you can gear yourself up for the conversation, or get your words ready to use with the difficult person. You know in the back of your mind you have already set the boundary and expectation that you only have 15 minutes to converse with this person today. If it is a business relationship, keep it business-like and goal-oriented in nature during this 15 minute time segment.

8 - Sneaky Pete

Amazon Prime's original television show, Sneaky Pete, is built on the premise of dealing with people by conning them into getting what you need from them. Giovanni Ribisi plays the main character in this popular show and lives on the ability to read people, build trust, and get them to think they are giving you something that will in turn help themselves.

Though this relationship may be perplexing to maintain, it helps you keep your wits about you when dealing with a difficult person. You can start by building trust with them. Trust is built in small increments of words and follow through. You are always keeping the endgame at the forefront of your mind.

I would argue that every person will use this technique in their lives in some fashion. Here is a common example of the Sneaky Pete strategy in action that many people have done when dealing with a difficult person.

When working with a difficult colleague who isn't open to encouragement and unwilling to change their mind on a given topic or project, you can build trust with them even if you struggle to maintain a friendship with them. Building trust leads to being able to influence someone's thoughts and actions. If the end game is to get this person to agree to starting a work project that they have completely denied previously, figuring out how to leverage this trust and influence plays into the Sneaky Pete strategy. By plotting out the simple steps for this person and making them believe the project ideas were theirs, you can play into a person's ego. As the small wins from these simple steps become easier and easier to ascertain, then using that person's ego and giving them credit can actually get the end game accomplished. Obviously, there will be difficult people that may see through this strategy and understand what you are doing. You may need to switch over to an honest conversation strategy and explain the rationale on why the project must be completed in a certain manner. The best leaders can empower their people to complete difficult tasks and projects many times in opposition to their original apprehension. Celebrating them afterwards is essential.

We use this strategy as educators almost every day when students do not want to complete an assignment or task. We break down the assignment, achieve some success, and then use their ego of success to believe that they accomplished the assignment on their own terms. This can begin a cycle of student success, and we know that success begets success.

We use this strategy as parents when we want our own children to do something that they refuse to complete. When cleaning up their room, you may come in to help pick up some toys and let them know they are having success, they feel good about this success and see that the task of cleaning their room is manageable. They continue to finish this task and believe they can do it next time on their own. Getting them to own this idea can be powerful for the student's success.

This strategy can work with adults as well. Whether people are willing to admit that they use this same strategy with their colleagues or family members is ridiculous, because we all do. Some people are very creative and it can be considered an art form. I have worked with people that refuse to complete a task and these people may even be difficult to be around. I have used this strategy to get what we need and want accomplished for our school district. I build trust and influence with them, get them to believe that idea is actually their own, and help them put the plan into place. Influencing other people happens every day and it can be done with people who are very difficult.

9 - Being Genuine and Compassionate

The ability to be genuine and compassionate with difficult people can be very time consuming and emotionally intensive. This is the strategy I choose to use most extensively, personally!

My mother always used the saying, "Kill them with kindness." In my mind, that meant no matter how difficult and mean a person is to me, continue to act with kindness towards that person. Kindness and love will prevail.

Honestly, in reflection, when people talk about you, do they think you are genuine and compassionate?

If not, we can start by explicitly mapping out the steps to working on being more kind. One strategy that James Archer states in his book, Happiness, is the five acts of kindness strategy. We can track the kindness we do for others. Completing five acts throughout the day and making sure to track this in a journal can be powerful. Once we start, the feeling of serving and being kind to others helps us enkindle more.

We can target the difficult and negative people with kindness and compassionate acts routinely. As stated above, for every one negative act, it takes three positive acts to combat the outcome. We can continue this cycle even if they continue to be mean and difficult.

10 - Modeling Conversations

A strategy we use with students in the education setting that has one of the highest success rates is modeling language. We model language with students who don't have the words or need support in practicing hard conversations. Many adults have this same problem. They avoid confrontation or don't have the words when they are dealing with other adults.

We can model conversations and set these difficult adults up for success. Modeling can go a long way with reaping the benefits of effective communication. We can read the other people in the room, determine the best words for the outcome we want, and then model the conversation. We can model not only words, but body language such as the placement of our eyes, smile, and voice inflection.

We can model conversations even when these difficult people don't want support. We can model what it looks like with others to have a positive solution-oriented conversation. Though it may seem like we are placating these individuals, we should model what we want in our workplace and in our relationships with friends and families.

11 - Addressing Toxic Positivity

Much of the strategies above deal with people that are difficult because they are frustrating to be around, angry all the time, or just plain negative. What about dealing with someone that is overly positive and pacifies all situations? This is toxic positivity.

This toxic positivity can ruin relationships and we tend to not want to be around people that refuse to address reality. The reality is...life is difficult. We can continue to have a growth mindset, spin and reframe many situations to the positive, but we also must understand that life can be complicated and it's okay to struggle.

In many relationships it seems people are unwilling to be honest with themselves and are unable to have hard conversations with people. They tend to let things slide, allow other people to be rude or disrespectful, and let others walk over them. Many of these people will fill you full of falsities about reality. They stuff their emotions inside and never address the difficult aspects of life's realities of work or families and friendships.

Empowering people to take action, be kind, act out of compassion, and continuing to work on communication with difficult people will strengthen relationships, improve our mental health, and set positive boundaries.

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