How to Deal with Difficult People

Tips to deal with the tattletale, the curmudgeon, the know-it-all, and the whiner.

Lisa B. Marshall,
July 30, 2010
Episode #101

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How to Deal with a Know-It-All

The bottom line when dealing with a difficult person is to realize you can’t change the other person.

Ned Know-it-all is someone who prides himself on his vast knowledge of a variety of subjects. He may indeed be very smart ,or perhaps just a storehouse of useless (or incorrect) trivia. Regardless, he has a hard time participating in conversations without appearing to be a show off (remember the bar know-it-all character Cliff Claven from the television show Cheers?)

I’ve found the best way to deal with the know-it-all is to assume a curious, subordinate role. Interact by asking “how” or “what” questions. Tap into their vast knowledge. That is a good approach because it feeds the ego of the know-it-all and potentially allows them to change their point of view as they are explaining something to you. (I try to avoid “why” questions because I’ve found that is often perceived as a challenge).

Remember to thank a know-it-all for his contribution. Often the know-it-all is desperate for respect, and if you give him some, he may be less inclined to work for it through bragging and attention-getting techniques.

Of course, avoiding this person is useful, but sometimes not possible. If necessary, consider finding a neutral third-party who is willing to act as a buffer between you and Ned Know-it-all; that way at least you won’t have to deal with him directly.

How to Deal with a Whiner

Similar to the curmudgeon, Wendy Whiner is never happy. The difference is she finds specific things to whine about where the curmudgeon may be cranky in general. The whiner tends to look at the pessimistic side of things--the glass is half-empty types. Let’s face it, we all whine now and again cause it feels good. 

When my kids whine, I like to make a game of it. I exaggerate what they are saying and paint an over-the-top picture of doom and gloom. “Oh my gosh, you have nothing to do. No books to read, no friends to play with, no toys or games in the basement, no backyard to run around in, no crafts to make, oh gosh, you really have NOTHING to do. Maybe you’d like to do some chores or more homework.” Usually along the way, they will start to laugh and  realize for themselves the uselessness of whining.

The approach I use with my Dad when he is whining about doing his physical therapy is to offer a reward. Yesterday, in fact, I brought over Philadelphia soft pretzels and told my Dad he would get them after each set of exercises. And of course, my Dad (the negotiator) says, “That’s great, but I’d like some ice cream too!” The idea is to come up with rewards to cut down on the whining.

I use a star system with my kids. If they are whining I tell them I will take away a star; and if they are doing a chore without whining or without me asking, I give them a star. They then collect stars to earn prizes—the more stars the bigger the prizes. (I keep a box of party favors as prizes.)

Another good approach for a whiner is to simply ignore it. If the whining doesn’t get attention, often it will just go away. 

Sometimes, however, someone whines because that’s how they ask for support. In this case, listening and offering empathy go a long way. But it’s most important to guide the whiner to take action to solve the problem. Sometimes when my girls come down for breakfast and they are still in their pajamas they’ll say, “I’m cold.” My response is, yes, I can see you are cold. It is cooler down here. So how do you solve that problem?” Then they smile and run back up stairs to get their robes. 

So there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to deal with the tattletale, the curmudgeon, the know-it-all, and the whiner.

This is The Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall with Beth Beutler this week. Passionate about communication, your success is our business.

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