The Surprise Effect for Getting Along with Difficult People

communication management marriage personal growth professional development relationships work Sep 14, 2023
Difficult People

In every area of life you are bound to run into people who at times can be very challenging. Simply stated, a difficult person is anyone who doesn't behave like we expect them to. We do, after all have some unwritten rules about appropriate behavior in our society. Be fair; wait your turn; say "please" and "thank you"; talk in conversational tones and volume... things you might consider common courtesy.

Difficult people may ignore those social rules, or act as if they are exempt from them - often while they expect you to live by their very high and unreasonable standards. They may use subtle manipulation or they may come on strong, being loud, intrusive, impolite, thoughtless, selfish, and, well… difficult!

Difficult people do what they do because it helps them avoid their fears and get what they want.  In other words, they do what they do because it works!

People who are chronically difficult are often labeled by others based on their predictable and pervasive pattern of interpersonal behaviors. Descriptions may include words like rude, steam roller, sarcastic, critical, instigator, whiner, self-absorbed, flaky, unreliable, and so on. 

You may have noticed that many “reality shows” on television are a big hit in large part because they make sure to pit difficult people against each other. As a society, we have come to rather enjoy seeing difficult people go at it as long as we don’t have to participate. Unfortunately, we all end up participating in our own experiences with challenging people from time to time.

Difficult people can be exhausting to deal with and often leave a wake of emotional destruction in their path.  Most of us naturally react by either avoiding them or flaring back at them with anger and defensiveness. In most cases, these reactions can backfire, so we need to find a better way to meet the challenge.

One effective tool was developed by psychologist Bruce Christopher called The Surprise Effect.

The Surprise Effect includes four key components:

  1. Doing the exact opposite of what people expect you to do.
  2. Taking control of your responses.
  3. Deciding to be proactive with people and not reactive.
  4. Being willing to interrupt frustrating and dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

The Surprise Effect strategy works because most interpersonal interactions follow an expected pattern and outcome. For example, the expected outcome of anger is defensiveness. If someone angrily blows up at you, you are likely to reflexively react with anger and become defensive.

What do you think would happen if, instead of reacting in an expected fashion, you were to do the opposite and respond in an unexpected and unanticipated way? In all likelihood you would experience a different outcome – one that may reflect your ability to influence your difficult person’s behavior in a positive way.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:    

Some difficult people use power and intimidation to get what they want and they are motivated by a need to feel significant or important. They expect you to react to their explosion of anger, insults or bullying by exploding yourself, giving in or threatening them. 

An unexpected surprise effect for the explosive person would include one of the following:

  1. Say and do nothing while they calm down.
  2. Empathize with them. “I can tell you are under a lot of stress right now and feel angry. I have felt that way before too.”
  3. Sincerely ask them to calmly repeat what they said so you can better listen and understand.

Bullies and explosive types tend to react with anger in an antagonistic environment so if you stay engaged without hostility or emotional force they are likely to calm down.

Another difficult type is the person who complains, frets and seems to carry a wet blanket to douse any hint of enthusiasm - they are predictably negative and pessimistic. These individuals are motivated by a sense of powerlessness and fear of failure so they complain and become resistant to change in an effort to not be challenged. They expect you to respond to them with your own negativity, attempts to cheer them up or to talk them out of their negative position. None of these strategies work.

An unexpected surprise effect for interacting with the “wet blanket” would include one of the following:

  1. Empathize and then empower them by guiding them toward solutions.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. “What would ‘better’ look like and how can we get there?”
  3. Stay positive in the face of their negativity and move forward with the idea.

When negative people discover that you are unwilling to argue or debate their negative position or listen to their complaining they will often back down.

I hope those examples give you some ideas of your own that will help you deal with difficult people in your life.  Here are a few additional tips: 

  • Don’t take it personally! Remember, their behavior is about them, not you.
  • Behave assertively, not passively or aggressively, and know what you want.
  • Use appropriate communication skills. (“I” Messages, listening skills)
  • Look to influence, not to change.

You’ll never be able to completely avoid encounters with difficult people, but with some practice and a positive attitude, you can make some encounters less frustrating and more productive.

Live, Work and Relate Well!

Dr. Todd

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