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Effective Strategies for Dealing with People You Can't Stand

By Jerry Vance and Lisa Leonard

Has This Happened To You?

It is Monday morning, and you walk into work, turn on the computer, and get ready to take your first sip of coffee. Suddenly, your boss stomps into your office and in a burst of anger demands to know why the department's budget is late. As soon as that fire cools, you ask your student worker if she has finished the report she said she would have done in time for your meeting that starts in twenty minutes. Your student worker apologizes profusely but admits she did not have time to complete the report because she had been busy working on two other projects for your coworkers. As a result, you arrive late to your meeting only to overhear a coworker make a sarcastic comment under her breath about your tardiness. (Everyone starts to laugh.) Once that meeting is over, you walk back into your office; before you can even sit down, another coworker appears and starts to complain about the lack of funding available for him to run his office effectively. He uses this as an excuse for his failure to complete his portion of the department's budget. Once your coworker finally ends his whining, you get the chance to take your second sip of coffee. This is when you realize that it is only Monday morning: You have the entire week ahead in which to deal with people you cannot stand.

We all have found ourselves in similar situations--where we feel frustrated and confused by certain behaviors that make our lives difficult. Fortunately, in their international bestseller, Dealing with People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (2002), Dr. Rick Brinksman and Dr. Rick Kirschner provide a strategy for dealing with ten of the most "unwanted behaviors" of colleagues. Their strategy is focused on assuming the best in others and identifying the positive intent that fuels these ten undesirable behaviors. Once we identify the positive intent, we can apply communication strategies and self-adjust our own attitude in order to "bring out the best in people at their worst" and, ultimately, make our lives easier.

Key Communication Strategies

Perhaps the most valuable point this book consistently reinforces is the importance of developing and applying communication techniques in order to get along with and understand others. After all, we know that issues can arise quickly on the heels of a simple misunderstanding. The authors convey the importance of clear communication by highlighting a 1967 study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor who wanted to gain a better understanding of how people interpret meaning through communication. Mehrabian's findings led him to develop the "55-38-7" communication rule. According to Mehrabian (1990), 55 percent of communication is based on what people see (facial expressions and posture); 38 percent is based on how communication sounds (tone, speed, volume); and only 7 percent of meaning is based on actual words spoken. This study underscores the importance of the verbal and non-verbal messages we communicate when interacting with others. This concept is of extreme importance when communicating over the phone and via e-mail because those technologies eliminate non-verbal cues that could help us better understand the messages they convey.

Following are three key techniques that incorporate both verbal and non-verbal communication:

  • Backtracking : Repeating some of the actual words that another person uses while reiterating her point.
  • Blending: Using any behavior–such as matching posture or voice volume--that reduces the differences between two people and that helps to establish common ground.
  • Redirecting: Using common ground and rapport to redirect communication to a positive outcome.

The Four Positive Intents That Drive Unwanted Behavior

According to Dr. Brinksman and Dr. Kirschner (2007), the four positive intents driving the ten unwanted behaviors are

  • getting the task done,
  • getting the task right,
  • getting along with others, and
  • getting appreciation from others.

Depending on whether his intent is more task-focused or more people-focused, intent will lead a person to present with a certain behavior ranging from passive to aggressive. For example, someone who is focused on getting a task done likely will exhibit a controlling and assertive behavior that is both time- and task-focused. In contrast, someone who has the key intent of getting along with others will be more people-focused and likely will exhibit more passive behavior focused on earning others' approval.

The 10 Most Unwanted Behaviors

Following is a brief summary of each of the ten "unwanted behaviors" described in the book:


Positive Intent: Get the task done.

Characteristics: Tanks are controlling, assertive, aggressive, and confrontational, and have short attention spans.

Your Goal: Command the Tank's respect.

Communication Plan:

  • Hold your ground when she approaches.
  • Tactfully interrupt the attack by repeating her name. Do not counterattack.
  • Quickly backtrack the main point to show that you understand the situation.
  • Redirect the Tank by showing how you share a common goal of getting the task done.
  • Maintain peace and earn her respect by assigning a time and conditions for following up on the issue once she has cooled down.

For example, "Boss, Boss, Boss. I understand that you think the budget should be finished by now, but I believe that the extra time I'm investing in the budget now will end up saving us time and money in the future. I'll be finished with the budget by 10 am tomorrow, and I look forward to your feedback."


Positive Intent: Get the task done and/or get appreciation.

Characteristics: Snipers try to make you look foolish through rude comments, sarcastic behavior, and focusing negative attention on you.

Your Goal: Bring the Sniper out of hiding.

Communication Plan:

  • As soon as the Sniper snipes, stop what you're doing, and backtrack whatever he said.
  • Remain calm and ask questions to determine the relevancy or meaning of his snide comment(s).
  • Determine why the Sniper may have a grudge against you.
  • Suggest solutions for a civil future.

There is also "Friendly Sniping," which typically is done in a playful way. In such cases, the Sniper's primary intention is getting appreciation through attention-getting comments. In this type of situation, it is best to address the Sniper in private by communicating your feelings directly. The Sniper may not have realized he was upsetting you and may change his behavior quickly.


Positive Intent: Get the task done.

Characteristics: Know-It-Alls are confident, knowledgeable, and competent. They have a low tolerance for errors and contradictions, and they often view new ideas unfavorably.

Your Goal: Open the person's mind to new ideas.

Communication Plan:

  • Be prepared by knowing your stuff.
  • Backtrack her views respectfully to acknowledge her expertise.
  • Address your own doubts about your idea before the Know-It-All has a chance to do so, and then present a solution or reasoning for backing your ideas.
  • Present your views indirectly: "I believe...," "Perhaps...," "Maybe...."
  • Turn the person into a mentor.


Positive Intent: Be appreciated.

Characteristics: Grenades unexpectedly blow up about things that do not relate to the current situation because they do not feel appreciated. Grenades typically feel remorse over their actions after the blow-up.

Your Goal: Take control of the situation.

Communication Plan:

  • Get the Grenade's attention by using a friendly tone and language.
  • Aim for the Grenade's heart by showing your genuine concern for his problem.
  • Reduce the intensity of the blow-up by talking him down to a normal level of communication.
  • Give the Grenade time to cool off before pursuing a discussion or resolution.
  • Prevent future grenade attacks by finding out what sets him off.


Positive Intent: Be appreciated.

Characteristics: Think-They-Know-It-Alls are assertive and attention-seeking. They learn just enough about a subject to sound as if they know it all. They exaggerate often and may believe what they say.

Your Goal: Catch her in the act, and stop the flow of wrong information.

Communication Plan:

  • Give the person a little attention through backtracking.
  • Ask some revealing clarification questions in order to get specifics: Who, specifically? What day?
  • Tell the facts using documented information.
  • Give her a break and resist the temptation to embarrass her. Have compassion.
  • Break the cycle through gentle confrontation.


Positive Intent: To get along with others.

Characteristics: The Yes Person says "yes" to everything in an attempt to gain approval from others. He commits to too many things and then has difficulty following through.

Your Goal: Get commitments you can count on.

Communication Plan:

  • Make it safe for him to be honest with you when he cannot commit to helping you.
  • Acknowledge his honesty and clear communication.
  • Help him learn how to plan.
  • Ensure commitment by having him summarize the commitment, write down the commitment, and/or write down the negative consequences if he does not follow through.
  • Strengthen the relationship by having him talk about his feelings; focus on what he does correctly; and project positive intent.

For example: "Student worker, I know you are expected to help many different people in our department, so please come talk to me whenever you are overburdened with projects. We can work together to figure out how you can prioritize your time and finish your projects. Also, I will not be upset if you cannot help me with my report on Monday. However, if you tell me you can finish my report in time for my meeting but end up not having time to do it, I'll be very disappointed. I will look unprepared for my meeting and will lose the respect of my coworkers. I know you are a hard worker and do so much for our department, so I want you to know you can always talk to me."


Positive Intent: Get along with others.

Characteristics: The Maybe Person cannot make decisions for fear of the consequences and procrastinates to the point where the decision makes itself.

Your Goal: Help the person learn to think decisively.

Communication Plan:

  • Establish and maintain a comfort zone and listen to her concerns.
  • Surface conflicts and clarify her options.
  • Use a decision-making system such as listing the pros and cons of a certain decision.
  • Reassure her that there are no perfect decisions and then ensure follow-through of her decision.


Positive Intent: Get along with others and/or be appreciated.

Characteristics: Nothing Persons give no verbal feedback.

Your Goal: Persuade the person to talk.

Communication Plan:

  • Plan enough time and be patient. The Nothing Person may take time to open up.
  • Ask open-ended questions expectantly: "What are your thoughts on this issue?"
  • Use humor and outlandish exaggerations or suggestions to get him to react and to ease any tension.
  • Propose a certain answer and wait to see if he responds.
  • Reference future consequences if he decides to remain silent.


Positive Intent: Get the task right.

Characteristics: The No Person is focused on perfection, fearful of making mistakes, and believes everything will go wrong. The No Person finds the negative in everything and everyone and passes her negativity on to others.

Your Goal: Transition to problem solving.

Communication Plan:

  • Do not waste your time trying to make her be positive. Do not let her bring you down.
  • Use her as a resource. She can be your early warning system for potential issues since she always looks for the negative anyway.
  • Do not push her to take action; this will only slow her down. Give her time to change her mind and communicate her thoughts.
  • Assume the worst before she has the chance to do so. For example, bring up the negatives before she does; this may force her to see some of the positives.
  • Acknowledge her good intent by praising her for her concern for details and for her high standards. This may change her outlook on issues, events, and morale.


Positive Intent: Get the task right.

Characteristics: Whiners are unable to focus on what is right in any given situation. Whiners wallow in their worries and rarely offer solutions.

Your Goal: Form a problem-solving alliance.

Communication Plan:

  • Listen for the main points and write them down. This shows the Whiner that you are listening, and it can prevent the Whiner from having the opportunity to repeat what was already said.
  • Tactfully interrupt and ask the Whiner for help in clarifying the specifics of his issue.
  • Shift the focus to solutions by asking him what he wants accomplished; then, develop a solution that focuses on the immediate future. For example, "Whiner, let's meet again next month to see whether it is feasible to cut $200 weekly from your budget."
  • Draw the line: If he is unwilling to work toward a solution and continues to whine, tell him through verbal and non-verbal communication that you do not want to hear his complaints. For example, "Whiner, your concerns are important to me, but there is no point in discussing this issue further if nothing can be resolved."

Now that you have more background on each of the ten "unwanted behaviors" discussed in the book, can you identify the four behaviors and their intents in the opening scenario? The boss is a Tank whose positive intent is focused on getting the task done . The student worker is a Yes Person whose primary intent is to get along with others. The coworker with the snide comment about being tardy is a typical Sniper who seeks attention from others. Finally, your coworker who complains about the budget is a Whiner whose intent is to get things right and to seek perfection.


Although it would be easier to believe that all of the difficult behaviors we encounter can be categorized easily in accordance with one of the ten behaviors listed in this book, it is important to note that behaviors may fall simultaneously into more than one category, depending on the situation and the environment. Furthermore, these unwanted behaviors can emerge in everyone--including our family, friends, and, most important, us. We all need to evaluate our intents and behaviors to determine whether we also are guilty of making life difficult for our coworkers, family, and friends.

This book is a great investment for everyone: Inevitably, we all will encounter the ten behaviors it discusses. The communication techniques the authors incorporate in their strategies for dealing with difficult behaviors can be applied to everyone with whom we interact, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives. Most important, the authors describe how we can take control of any situation by improving our communication and changing our attitude toward others. By reading and applying the techniques in this book, we will be better able to face Monday mornings and any of our colleagues–even those with behaviors we cannot stand.


Brinkman, R., and R. Kirschner. 2002. Dealing with People You Can't Stand. How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst . New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Mehrabian, A. 1990. Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Second Edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.

About the Authors

Jerry Vance served as Assistant Registrar of Scheduling at The Ohio State University until his retirement in July 2009. He chaired an AACRAO committee for 2 years and served on various other committees for 14 years. His advice is to get involved, get to know your colleges, and have fun!

Lisa Leonard is Registrar at Lexington College (Chicago). She earned her B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Iowa and her M.S. in Adult and Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. Her research interests include student mentoring and retention.

This article was based on a presentation given at the 2009 Annual AACRAO conference. The AACRAO Mentor Committee was responsible for proposing this topic and book to serve as a resource for all managers and staff to use when mentoring others in the workplace. Both Lisa Leonard and Jerry Vance serve on the Mentor Committee and were co-presenters of this topic.