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The Making of Difficult Behaviors

When working with that “tank” or that “know-it-all”, or any other difficult personality type, it can be so frustrating that you begin to perceive the individual as an unlikeable person: someone to avoid at all costs. If an interaction is a must, you are constantly trying to shortening the time spent together, possibly risking the development of a vital solution to a critical issue. So, what can be done to enhance the relationship and increase the possibility of achieving a productive outcome?

It all starts with the understanding of how people develop. In Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner provide a simple model for understanding human behavior. The first aspect in understanding human behavior is the level of assertiveness expressed by individuals. As you observe every day, some people are passive in their interactions while others are aggressive. And, again as observed daily, there are individuals who range somewhere between very passive and very aggressive. The reality is human behavior demonstrates a wide range from passive to aggressive on the assertiveness continuum.

The second aspect in understanding human behavior is the focus of that level of assertiveness. Is the focus on the task or is it on the relationships or the people? To appreciate how focus works, we need to realize that every behavior has a purpose or an intent that the individual is trying to fulfill in the situation. Is the intent to accomplish the task or is it to develop or maintain the relationship?

In Dealing With People You Can’t Stand the authors identify four general intents; 1. get the task done, 2. get the task right, 3. get along with people, or 4. get appreciation from people. It is these four intents that will determine how an individual will behave in any situation.

Here is how it works. When there is an urgency to get a task done, perhaps because of a deadline, that task becomes all encompassing. Other tasks or events, and especially people, get ignored until the task is done. And depending on how essential the task is, getting it done may be more important than doing it right. Many mistakes, and even disasters, have been the result of intense focus on getting the task completed. When this single focus is on the intent to get the task done, we may become very aggressive or controlling of others, thus resulting in a behavior such as utilized by the “tank” or the “grenade” personality.

If the task involves the input of others, as so many do, the “tank”, due to the intent to get the task done, may take control and push others or tell them how to do their work. In many cases the controlling individual may just do the work for them. After all, there isn’t time to wait for the others. It is just easier to do it for them. This behavior becomes perceived as bullying or controlling and the individual becomes labeled a “control freak.”

The same phenomenon can happen with the other intents as well. Perhaps the task is so critical that making certain that it is done right is far more important than the deadline. Thus the focus becomes one of striving for perfection and demonstrated behaviorally by the “whiner” or the “nothing” personality.

An example of this behavior can be seen by the researcher who has just completed a revolutionary research project and now needs to report the results to the world of peer researchers. However, with these critical minds being ready to identify the slightest imperfection, the researcher keeps revising the document over and over and over: constantly complaining there just isn’t even time to write and continue other research at the same time. The passive result may be years before the document is published, if at all.

When the intent becomes one of gaining appreciation, the behavior becomes attention seeking as demonstrated by the “sniper” or the “think-they-know-it-all” personalities. The best example of this behavior is the classical “class clown.” By being disruptive the class clown draws attention to his or her antics and becoming liked by her or his classmates. As this intent gets played out in adulthood, the behavior becomes gaining attention by appearing as if the individual is an expert. These individuals aggressively fulfill their intent by submitting their own award applications or even submitting false credentials to prestigious institutions.

The passive intent of the people focus results in approval seeking behaviors as can be observed in the “yes” or the “”maybe” personalities. This behavior can easily be seen by the individual who doesn’t ever take a stand on an issue, the fence sitter, in fear of upsetting someone and not being “approved” by that person.

Another example is the “yes” personality who agrees with everyone, thus feeling extremely uncomfortable with conflict situations. After all, if the “yes” personality is caught between two or more different perspectives, there may be a chance that someone will not approve of the “yes” person. Therefore, the passive approval seeking personality will avoid conflict situations at all costs, even if that means not showing up for an important meeting or event.

Hopefully, you are beginning to understand something common to all these difficult behaviors as they are played out by these difficult personalities. It is that all behavior is caused or the result of the intent that the individual is trying to fulfill. The difficult behavior has nothing to do with us, the apparent “victim” of their behavior. Instead, it has to do with the unfulfilled needs of the individual displaying the difficult behavior. Knowing this frees us from trying to defend or protect ourselves. Now we can begin to focus on the difficult behavior, understand its origin, and begin to determine how to address the behavior and achieve the best possible outcome.

In the next posting, I will address some examples of how to address these difficult behaviors. Until next time, try observing difficult behaviors from this framework and see how that changes your own thoughts and behaviors.

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