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How to Deal with Difficult People: Jay Johnson (Transcript)

Jay Johnson at TEDxLivoniaCCLibrary

Here is the full text of communication trainer Jay Johnson’s talk titled “How to Deal with Difficult People” at TEDxLivoniaCCLibrary conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to Deal with Difficult People by Jay Johnson at TEDxLivoniaCCLibrary event


I want you to think of a time when maybe you were interacting with somebody who you felt was difficult.

As you’re sitting there and you’re talking to them, maybe getting into an argument, maybe the tensions are starting to rise, you can feel your palms starting to sweat. You can feel your breath starting to get shorter. You can feel yourself getting angry.

And at some point in time in that conversation, you decide: “I’ve had enough of this. It’s time for me to walk away.” You walk out.

You get about five steps this way and it hits you, and you’re like: “Oh, I should have said this. I would have totally got them.”

That is a product of our brains.

When we meet somebody, maybe for the first time and we shake their hands. We say: “Hello. How are you? My name is Jay. Nice to meet you.”

And something in the back of your mind is already hitting you and going: “I’m not going to like this person.”

Well, if you’ve experienced that, trust me you’re not alone.

Our brain is designed for survival. What Daniel Goleman calls the low-road is something where we look at… others call it the limbic system… our fear regulation, our fight-or-flight response.

When we deal with difficult people, ultimately what we’re doing is trying to get past that response. It’s a natural response that we have.

In fact, it’s an important response. It is the response that stress comes into the body. So we see things like adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol flood the system when we’re engaged with those difficult people.

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We’re in a heightened state of anxiety during that. And our other systems start to shut down. We don’t think rationally. Our metabolism slows. We can even get acne from having too much stress hormones put into the body.

Is that a way that we want to live our lives?

Conflict in the workplace between difficult people or not difficult people has serious impacts. And ultimately what it does is it causes turnover, absenteeism. It can even cause projects to fail.


We can’t change other people’s behavior. I can’t make somebody behave in a way that I want them to. So I guess maybe we need to look at a different framework of operating from internal.

When we look at people, one of the ways that we can start changing this conversation with ourselves is to look at how we label them. So we label somebody difficult or a pain in the you-know-what.

We also have these archetypes that we tend to create. So, for example, one of the people you might encounter them in the office place, you walk in to have a conversation with them. And they won’t lift their head up. They’re just sitting there. They’re texting. They’re playing on their computer and they’re not paying any attention to you. That’s the archetype of the not-listener.

We have other archetypes such as the one-upper. If you’ve ever been at a party and you tell a story. And then what happens… somebody has to tell a better story. Or you go and get a new dress and somebody has to get a better dress, or something of that nature… anything that’s always the one-up archetype.

How about the gossiper? The person that walks around and gossip all about different people in the office place, almost just to stir up trouble.

What about the curmudgeon? The person that’s been there and done that and remembers the glory days of everything that’s right or wrong with your organization.

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Now part of my framework is behavior and I can guarantee you that at some point in time, when I was talking about those archetypes, you put a name and a face with each one of those individuals.

Yeah, I see the nods.

When we look at that and we understand that those are the different behaviors that really impact us individually. We know that we need to change.

The simple message is this: Why should we have to change ourselves because of somebody else’s behavior? Because it’s your heart attack. Those stress hormones are killers. It’s your heart attack.

So if we can’t change other people’s behaviors, the only thing that we can change is our own behaviors. Let’s look at a unique approach through behavioral intelligence.

Behavioral intelligence really has four quadrants: to be able to explain existing behaviors; predict future behaviors; influence other people’s behaviors; and control our own behaviors. And we’ll talk about that in the context of difficult people.

So one of the things that we want to look at is: how do we explain behaviors. When we see somebody do something that we really just don’t like, and we label them, maybe they’re stubborn.

Well, at the same time couldn’t we see our friend doing that and say well they’re just headstrong?

We see somebody do something that we feel like it’s aggressive, but on the other side of things we look at our friend that does the exact same behavior and we say: Wow! They’re dedicated, motivated, passionate even.

So some of these labels start to infiltrate the way that we understand the world. It’s a bias that we have.

So we want to look a little bit deeper and ask the question of why: Why did somebody behave that way? Is it something inherent? Is it an intrinsic desire that is pushing them to behave that way?

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Now this is a tough question, because we’re in a heat at the moment. One of the things that we get really frustrated with is ourselves in that moment. We don’t take the time to actually ask; we just label and continue. But again it’s your heart attack. It’s your organization that’s suffering.

So we have to look at this in a different way. Asking questions is one of the best ways to explain behavior. And I’m going to give you an example of a case study… one of my favorite case studies… of when I was working with two different divisions in a management organization.

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