Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
There was plenty of hilarity during a KSBA annual conference clinic session about a not-so- hilarious subject: dealing with “difficult” and “interesting” people. Both are euphemisms for what Texas Association of School Boards senior consultant David Koempel, left, more plainly labeled in the title of his training as: “mavericks, malcontents and mutineers.”
While there were lots of laughs during some interactive group activities, Koempel gave attendees insights into what makes difficult people tick, along with five strategies for dealing with them. The lesson was focused on people who are behaving badly because they’re having “a difficult life,” and not just having a bad day or temporary challenges.
People usually exhibit difficult behaviors as a “coping strategy,” because something bad has happened to them, or perhaps for a biological reason, Koempel explained. “Coping behaviors are usually about power and control. They exhibit power and control to cope with pain and fear.”
Knowing this, he said, can provide perspective and “may give you a degree of compassion for them.”
He listed the main types of “interesting”personalities:
• Demanding types, who want things done better and faster and will issue threats if their demands aren’t met.
• Arrogant types, the know-it-alls who don’t want help from anyone else, since others are less worthy or qualified.
• Whiners, who always see the negative, are constantly complaining and can never be satisfied no matter what.
• Uncooperative types are those who don’t meet commitments, ignore deadlines and requests, and drag things out.
• Unreliable types, who don’t seem to care, don’t take care with the quality of their work, and say one thing but do another.
Don’t fall into the trap of letting difficult people push your button, Koempel told clinic attendees. “You always have a choice to push your own button,” he said.
These difficult types represent just a fraction of people in an organization or community, he said. “Don’t forget the majority of people you have in your community, in your schools, just want to know what you’re doing.”
Most people with these behaviors are not conscious of it because they’ve been behaving this way for so long, “they’ve forgotten what they’re trying to avoid,” Koempel noted. Because of this, “you’re not going to change somebody’s way of being” and you shouldn’t try, he said.
Koempel offered six strategies “to keep you sane” when dealing with “interesting” people:
Stop – Pause and think, “Where do I want to go with this?” so you won’t be tempted to respond in kind. “Don’t get on their game field. You have control of your button,” he said.
Communicate – “The most important thing in communication is to authentically listen to where they are coming from, to really listen,” Koempel advised. Most difficult people are used to being ignored, so while this won’t cure a relationship it “could build several steps to a bridge.” A caveat: If the person becomes truly ugly and threatening, make an excuse and walk away.
Curiosity – Figure out what kind of strategy an “interesting” person is using on you and logically determine how you will react. “Think more like a scientist and less like an artist,” he said.
Breath – As in take a deep breath. Koempel advised practicing taking long and deep breaths during encounters with difficult people. This is proven to slow down the body physiologically and will make it easier to respond in a logical manner.
Principles – Have a clear sense of who you are and what you believe in, write it down and commit to it. “It keeps you grounded in where you are,” he said.
Attitude – Remember that you control your ability to interact with difficult people, Koempel said. “You are always in control of your own attitude.”