Difficult People

  1. A Hostile-Aggressive Trio: Sherman Tanks, Snipers, and Exploders

1) Sherman Tanks


Coping with Sherman Tanks:

Give them a little time to run down.

Don’t worry about being polite; get in any way you can.

Get their attention, perhaps by calling them by name or sitting or standing deliberately.

If possible, get them to sit down.

Maintain eye contact.

State your own opinions and perceptions forcefully.

Don’t argue with what the other person says or try to cut him or her down.

Be ready to be friendly.

2) Snipers & Exploders


Coping with Snipers:

Smoke them out. Don’t let social convention stop you.

Provide the Sniper with an alternative to a direct contest.

Don’t capitulate to the Sniper’s view of the situation. Get other points of view.

Do move on to try to solve any problems that are uncovered.

Prevent sniping by setting up regular problem-solving meetings.

If you are a third party to the sniping, stay out of the middle but do insist that it stop in front of you.

Coping with Exploders:

Give them time to run down and regain self-control on their own.

If they don’t, break into their tantrum state by saying or shouting a neutral phrase such as “Stop!”

Show that you take them seriously.

If needed and possible, get a breather and get some privacy with them.

3) Complainer & Clams & Super Agreeables

  1. “And Another Thing” – The Complete Complainer

Listen attentively to their complaints even if you feel guilty or impatient.

Acknowledge what they’re saying by paraphrasing and checking out your perception of how they feel about it.

Don’t agree with or apologize for their allegation even if, at the moment, you accept them as true.

Avoid the accusation-defense-re-accusation pattern.

State and acknowledge facts without comment.

Try to move to a problem-solving mode by asking specific, informational questions, assigning limited fact-finding tasks, or asking for the complaints in writing, but be serious and supportive about it.

If all else fails, ask the Complainer: “How do you want this discussion to end?”

  1. Clamming up: The Silent and Unresponsive Person

Rather than trying to interpret what the silence means, get the Clam to open up.

Ask open-ended questions.

Wait as calmly as you can for a response. Use counseling questions to help reticent Clams.

Do not fill in the silence with your conversation.

Plan enough time to allow you to wait with composure.

Get agreement on or state clearly how much time is set aside for your “conversation.”

If you get no response, comment on what’s happening. End your comment with an open-ended question.

Again, wait as long as you can, then: comment on what’s happening and wait again. try to keep control of the interaction by dealing matter-of-factly with “Can I go now?” and “I don’t know” responses.

When the Clam opens up: be attentive and watch your own impulse to gush. flow with tangential comments. They may lead to something relevant and important. If they don’t, state your own need to return to the original topic.

If the Clam stays closed: avoid a polite ending, terminate the meeting yourself and set up another appointment, at length, inform the Clam what you must and will do, since a discussion has not occurred.

  1. Super-Agreeables and Other Wonderfully Nice People

You must work hard to surface the underlying facts and issues that prevent the Super-Agreeables from taking action.

Let them know that you value them as people by telling them directly. asking or remarking about family, hobbies, wearing apparel. Do this only if you mean it, at least a little.

Ask them to tell you about those things that might interfere with your good relationship.

Ask them to talk about any aspect of your product, service, or self (if appropriate, only) that is not as good as the best.

Be ready to compromise and negotiate if open conflict is in the wind.

Listen to a Super-Agreeable’s humor. There may be hidden messages in those quips or teasing remarks.

4) Super Negativist & Know it All (Bulldozers & Ballons)


  1. Wet Blanket Power: The Negativist at Work

Be alert to the potential, in yourself and in others in your group, for being dragged down into despair.

Make optimistic but realistic statements about past successes in solving similar problems.

Don’t try to argue Negativists out of their pessimism.

Do not offer solution-alternatives yourself until the problem has been thoroughly discussed.

When an alternative solution is being seriously considered, quickly raise the question yourself of negative events that might occur if the alternative were implemented.

See the doom sayings of the Negativist in perspective as potential problems to be overcome.

At length, be ready to take action on your own. Announce your plans to do this without equivocation.

Beware of eliciting negativistic responses from highly analytical people by asking them to act before they feel ready.


  1. Bulldozers and Balloons: The Know-It-All Experts

Coping with Bulldozers:

Make sure you have done a thorough job of preparing yourself; carefully review all pertinent materials and check them for accuracy.

Listen carefully and paraphrase back the main points of the Bulldozer’s proposals, thus avoiding over-explanation.

Avoid dogmatic statements.

To disagree be tentative, yet don’t equivocate; use the questioning form to raise problems.

Ask extensional questions to assist in the re-examination of plans.

Watch your own bulldozing tendencies by: listening for Know-It-All behavior in yourself; conveying your appreciation of the Bulldozer’s knowledge; proposing delays in action to gain time for each to review the other’s proposals.

As a last resort, choose to subordinate yourself to avoid static and perhaps to build a relationship of equality in the future.


Coping with Balloons:

State correct facts or alternative opinions as descriptively as possible and as your own perceptions of reality.

Provide a means for the Balloon to save face.

Be ready to fill the conversation gap yourself.

Cope with a Balloon when he or she is alone, when possible.

5) Indecisive Stallers:


  1. Indecisive Stallers:

Make it easy for Stallers to tell you about conflicts or reservations that prevent the decision.

Listen for indirect words, hesitations, and omissions that may provide clues to problem areas.

When you have surfaced the issues, help Stallers solve their problems with the decision.

At times, the Staller’s reservation will be about you. If so: acknowledge any past problem; state relevant data nondefensively; propose a plan; ask for help.

If you are not part of the problem, concentrate on helping the Staller examine facts. Use the facts to place alternative solutions in priority order. This makes it easier if the Staller has to turn someone else down.

If real, emphasize the quality and service aspects of your proposal.

Give support after the decision seems to have been made.

If possible, keep the action steps in your hands.

Watch for signs of abrupt anger or withdrawal from the conversation. If you see them, try to remove the Staller from the decision situation.


Bramson, Robert M. Coping with Difficult People, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1988.

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