Series on Dealing with Difficult People – Self regulation

We meet all kinds of people in and outside the workplace. It is very difficult for us to predict how they would behave in various circumstances. We cannot control them, we can however control ourselves. It is very important for us to know how we should behave when we deal with difficult people.

Barbara is an assistant professor in biochemistry working in signal transduction. Six months ago, she had an idea about a way to use a green fluorescent protein (GFP)-SMAD construct to monitor changes in the intracellular location of a particular SMAD during cell signaling. She discussed the idea with Mohan, an assistant professor of physiology with experience using GFP constructs.

Later that year, Barbara sat in on a seminar about SMADs given by Astrid, a faculty member from another institution. Astrid discussed some preliminary work in which she used a SMAD-GFP construct in almost precisely the same way that Barbara had planned. Moreover, she indicated that this work was being done in collaboration with Mohan.

Barbara felt herself getting red in the face during the seminar. She believed that Mohan had stolen her idea and she was furious. At the end of the seminar, hardly able to contain her anger, she approached Mohan and pulled him aside. “I told you that I was planning to do almost exactly that experiment six months ago. Now I find that you did the same experiment with Astrid. This is infuriating and amounts to theft of my work.” During this recitation, Barbara became increasingly agitated and shouted loud enough for everyone leaving the seminar to hear, “How can you possibly justify what you did?”

Mohan was stunned and embarrassed. People were looking at the two of them. In desperation, he said, “Look, you’re way off base here. I never talked about your work. Why don’t you calm down? You have completely misunderstood this situation and now you are making a mountain out of a molehill.”

To Barbara, this felt like an attempt to brush her off and she became even more furious. “You’re an outright liar, Mohan, and I’m taking this to the committee on scientific misconduct,” she shouted. After hearing Barbara call him a liar, Mohan became furious and said, “Go ahead. You’re paranoid and everyone knows that.” In this case, we have the advantage of knowing that Barbara did in fact talk to Mohan about her idea. But we do not know whether Mohan knowingly misappropriated it or whether something else happened. Whatever the case, Mohan’s reaction simply fanned the flames of Barbara’s anger and resulted in her filing a formal charge of misconduct against him.

Mohan did everything wrong when confronted by Barbara. He denied her anger, or that she had any reason to be angry, by telling her to calm down. Telling an angry person to calm down is probably the least effective way to get them to do that. In fact, it is likely to increase their anger. Then Mohan told Barbara that what she is furious about is not a big deal. It was clearly a big deal to Barbara, and hearing Mohan deny that she had something to be angry about did not help. What could Mohan have done differently?

Let us rerun the scenario with a new and different Mohan. Mohan: “Barbara, I can see that you are really angry. I see how this looks to you, and I’d be angry too if I thought that someone did that to me. Frankly, it should have occurred to me how this would look, and I apologize for not speaking with you sooner. Can we go somewhere and talk about this? I’d really like to explain how this situation came about. The last thing I want is for our relationship to be damaged because of this.”

Principles used:

• Empathize: Mohan acknowledges Barbara’s anger and shows that he understands why she is angry.

• Agree: Mohan has agreed that Barbara has the right to be angry based on what she thinks happened. In doing this, Mohan has not agreed that he has done anything wrong. It’s important to note that telling Barbara that he can understand her anger is not the same as admitting that he did anything wrong. In fact, in this case, Mohan did not do anything wrong. But he needs to create a climate that enables him to explain this.

• Apologize: Next Mohan apologizes, not for doing anything wrong, but for failing to anticipate how Barbara would perceive the situation. Apologies work wonders with angry people, even if you are not apologizing for precisely what they are angry about. It shows Barbara that Mohan cares about her feelings and is willing to accept some responsibility.

• Inquire: Mohan tells Barbara that he would like to hear more about what she believes happened, further showing that he is interested in her perception.

• Assure: Finally, he assures her that it is important to him to maintain their relationship. All of this will allow Mohan to explain the situation from his perspective in a calm setting.

Source: Lab Dynamics (2nd edition), by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen