5 Guidelines for Dealing with Difficult Behaviors

POSTED: Dec. 09, 2016

Photo of a MeetingHave you ever seen an adult engage in a tantrum usually exhibited by a toddler? Have you ever been the recipient of someone’s silent treatment? Have you ever found yourself doing a favor for someone while wondering how you allowed yourself to be maneuvered into doing something you really didn’t want to do?

Most of us have had experience with people who regularly break the rules of polite decorum and who frequently disregard others’ boundaries. Often they expect us to excuse their actions because they say the situation caused them to behave in an inappropriate way or they claim we caused them to react with a particular behavior. The truth is we are all accountable for our choices of actions. Granted, sometimes our emotions take over rational thought and these emotions can lead to exhibiting inappropriate behaviors. This is not an excuse, however, for simply saying and doing what we want and then maybe apologizing for it later. In fact, an apology may not be sufficient amends for inappropriate behavior regardless of its cause. Have you ever been around kids who are being taught to apologize when they have done something wrong? They often go through a phase of behaving badly and then figuring the apology will make up for it. This mindset doesn’t change until other consequences to their actions are assigned in addition to the apology being offered.

But why do adults exhibit difficult behaviors without regard for the behavior’s effect on others? Adults should have been taught this lesson that apologies may not amend the infraction, right? Not necessarily. Most often these behavioral choices have become habit over time because the actions have been positively reinforced. For example, if a person has thrown tantrums since the age of two and the most consistent result was that people gave in to the tantrum demands in order to silence the outburst, why would that person stop throwing tantrums at the age of 42? Why stop doing what has worked?

The most important strategy for dealing with difficult behaviors, therefore, is not to give positive reinforcement to the bad behavior. This sounds simple, but this implies that we must become comfortable confronting conflict and setting boundaries with others, even at the risk of the relationship. What if the person is your supervisor and you need to keep your job, for example? There are many reasons people give for not standing up to bad behavior in others. How many of the following reasons have you used?

  • Their defensive reaction isn’t worth talking to them.
  • They might retaliate.
  • That’s just the way they are and I really don’t believe people change.
  • The only way to deal with them is to become loud and emotional and I really resent having to do that.
  • I don’t have any power in this situation.

It is easy to find reasons not to stand up to bad behavior. Who wants the emotional upheaval that the confrontation might cause? The problem is that our silence has given tacit approval to the behavior and when it happens again our reaction is even more resentful than the first time. The longer we wait to address the behavior, the stronger our resentment. The stronger our emotions, the more likely we are to exhibit inappropriate behavior in response.

So, what is wrong with “getting in someone’s face” when we’re fed up with their behavior? Several things:

  1. We are now focused on ensuring they know how mad we are instead of focusing on describing the inappropriate behavior and what alternative behavior is acceptable to us.
  2. We are now acting in ways that we wouldn’t tolerate from others.
  3. We have lost our dignity and made it clear that explosive conversations are OK with us.
  4. We have set up a score-keeping focus in the relationship.

Other strategies people employ in the face of difficult behavior are equally ineffective. Many times people choose to exhibit the same behavior as the perpetrator just to make them “see how they like being treated this way.” The problem is that what has been communicated is that you approve of that behavior so much that you are willing to engage in it yourself. Sometimes people try memorizing the perfect comeback. This rarely works because the person does not say to you what you thought they were going to and your memorized lines make no sense in the real scenario. Or, often people begin psychoanalyzing the person in order to embark upon a plan to change them. They then expend massive amounts of energy and become entangled in the drama of that person’s life only to discover that the person enjoys the attention but will continue to behave the way they always have. Many of these strategies make us feel better in the short term, but do little to ensure we will not be the target of the difficult behavior in the future.

So what strategies do work in standing up to difficult behavior? Here are five guidelines:

  1. Separate the person from the behavior. If you criticize for being a bad person, their defensiveness will truly create a rift in the relationship. Keep your focus on disapproving of the choice of action that person has made. You will be better able to demonstrate respect for that person during the conversation (whether that’s how you feel about them or not is irrelevant). Being respectful while describing inappropriate behavior prevents you from looking so emotional that the person disregards your comments. For more information on how to focus on the behavior and not the person, please read my blog “The #1 Way to Control Emotions During Conflict: Focus on the Issue.”
  2. Standing up to bad behavior is not the same as fighting back. Fighting back means you are engaging in counter attacks or trying to be as loud and abrasive as they are or worse yet, trying to out-maneuver their games. In any case, you will be just as guilty of difficult behaviors as they are. Standing up means you are describing the behavior that is inappropriate and stating what behavior is acceptable to you instead. Period. No justifications, just expectations.
  3. Do not take their behavior personally no matter how personal the attack is. What drives most people’s difficult behavior is that they perceive an obstacle to what they want. You just happen to be that obstacle at that moment. This does not mean that you allow inappropriate personal comments against you. It just means that while you express your refusal to accept the comments, you can remain calm and dignified because you have not internalized their words. Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Do not give consent.
  4. They own their behavior. Some difficult behavioral types will attempt to blame the target of their behavior for “being too sensitive.” They use this technique to diminish the validity of the comments of the person who is standing up to their attack. Do not take the bait on this strategy. Their behavioral choice was inappropriate and you are confronting them about it. Period. State what actions you expect from them. Set your boundaries. If you have been hurt by their behavior or comments, do not allow them to convince you that you are over-reacting. Especially do not accept the passive-aggressive strategy they might use of “I was just kidding, can’t you take a joke?” Tell them, “Yes I can and I believe you were actually making a serious comment that needs to be discussed.” Then guide the conversation from there.
  5. Provide an alternative behavior. If this person’s choice of behavior truly is due to habit and getting away with it for years, they obviously need coaching in what to do instead. For example, if you have a colleague who constantly barges into your office unannounced, tell them you cannot listen when you are caught off guard and state that you will be unable to talk with them in the future unless they knock first or call before they drop in. You could also make it rewarding to follow your instructions by stating that you would be happy to set up a weekly 10-minute meeting during which they will have your full attention. The format is simple: State what current behavior is not acceptable to you and why and what new behavior would be advantageous to both of you. Be open to their suggestions of what to do differently since this is a good sign that they are willing to change how the two of you interact.

Dealing effectively with difficult behaviors is not about winning or losing. In fact, if you take a winner-take-all approach, you have actually agreed to an on-going battle with this person that encourages both of you to exhibit behaviors that become more and more inappropriate over time in order to win. There is no prize for this contest. Everyone loses dignity, trust and the willingness of on-lookers to interact with either of us, to name but a few. Remember, the goal here is “dealing with difficult behaviors,” meaning stating expectations of what actions are acceptable to us. The goal is not “changing difficult people.” We can only truly change ourselves. Responding assertively, yet tactfully in the face of unacceptable behavior is a good change for each of us to make. This is personal power. Engaging in their bad behavior to “win” is giving our personal power over to someone exhibiting questionable choices.

Do not give up too quickly. Some people will test you often to determine your resolve to stand up for yourself. They are hoping you will get tired of the effort. But aren’t you worth it? Learn more in Kent State’s “Dealing with Difficult Behaviors” program.