THE BLOG
08/22/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Don't Act Like a Jerk Because Someone Else Is

Summer in our village-by-the-bay, Sausalito, is packed with tourists. Some dawdle and gawk in the crosswalks. Thousands of others, on rented bikes, attempt to maneuver down the unfamiliar, narrow winding road into town and then ride up onto the sidewalks to get out of the way of cars. Meanwhile uber cyclists whiz past them, and impatient motorists attempt to get around them. Many get irritated at each other.

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Hint: other people can be difficult because they experience the same situation differently than we do, thus they do not act right. This daily friction between people out when there is so much beauty around on which we can focus instead, reminds me of a training course offered years ago. It was by far, the most popular, profitable one that a training firm, CareerTrack, offered: Dealing With Difficult People.

Yet instructors burnt out on teaching it. Why? Because that jerk in their life was top of mind when attendees came into class and many were hell-bent on sharing their woes.
By the first break, the trainer had presented four concrete tips for resolving or reducing conflict. Yet attendees rushed up, not to explain which method they'd try first, but to fervently share their personal horror story with the jerk in their life.

We discovered that it is hard for most people, when upset with someone, to:

• Explore how one's own behavior might be instigating or somehow reinforcing their difficult behavior
• Get out of the rut of complaining, and repeating our complaints to others.
• Suggest something to that person who's being difficult that "might make it better for both of us" or to ask for their specific suggestion, "to help us improve the situation."

What Makes You Most Angry and How Will You Act Next Time?

What gets you peeved? Again and again. Lucky you. You are experiencing a Learning Moment. One that can make your life better. Eventually. Moments of anger are the wake-up calls for practicing new ways to dissolve friction. If you don't see a pattern in what keeps happening to you it may be because you need to be hit on the head again to get the lesson. About now, you may be thinking to yourself, "enough character-building already!"

For example, I caught myself complaining (again) to a friend about an acquaintance who continues to ask me for free advice, most recently about how to become a paid, public speaker. Yet she ignored my single request for help just a month ago.

Don't Act Like a Jerk Because You Feel Someone Else Is

My righteousness was palpable, but not constructive. Thankfully I had a deadline to meet and did not have time to share my hot feelings with this colleague by phone. With time to reflect I realized she'd hit one of my hot buttons.Instead of attacking her for continuing to expect free help from me while ignoring my request for help I could attempt to cultivate a mutuality beneficial relationship. I might say:

"Sheila, thank you for valuing my advice as I appreciate your expertise. Would you like to set up a cross-consulting session? That way, we might each have 30 minutes to ask each other for help, then see if we need more time. Or, via the coaching button on my web site, you can suggest some times that are convenient for me to advise you. It's likely that one of the times will work for me too. Thank you."

Cool Off and Get Clear by Responding in Writing

With a hot button behavior, you are more likely to stick to your suggested solution and keep cool if you write to the other person, with your suggested course of action. I felt myself cool down as I wrote (and rewrote) this email.

In my message to Sheila, I:

1. Sandwiched my specific suggested change between two positive statements:
By starting and ending with positive comments you increase the chances that the other person must address what you suggest rather than criticize you for how you suggested it. That's powerful protection for you.

2. Invoked the "two choice" gambit.
That is I acted as if I presumed that she would change her behavior rather than asking her to, by offering two alternative changes. This is akin to the presumptive close in sales where, rather than asking if they want to buy, you presume they will and discuss the benefits that will result from the purchase.

As well, when someone who works for you complains to you about a colleague's behavior, ask, "What solution did you suggest to your colleague to improve the situation for you both?" Sure, we all need someone with whom we can vent --then move onto a solution. Your goal -- as a boss, colleague or friend - is to listen, then support someone in choosing a desired change and the steps to achieving it, rather than getting stuck in an ever deepening rut of reaction.

Recognize Your Hot Buttons and Practice Healthy Responses to Them

Each of us have three hot buttons -- other's behaviors that cause us to go bonkers. That's when we leap to our own defense or go on the attack.
When you don't like what someone has said or done you are also more likely to worsen the situation by:
• Using emotion-laden words: "...thoughtlessly late."
• Characterizing the situation in the extreme: "You always..."
• Describing what peeves you, yet not suggest an alternative behavior or two. (Never offer more than three.)

The Sharpest Stick Points Out the Biggest Place for Relief in Your Life

Hot button behaviors are probably the most difficult learning opportunities we face in life. They are for me. That means, as Alexandra Levit explains, even tiny changes in how we act can reap huge relief when we manage to make them. Hint: In every difficult situation you have three choices and the sooner you choose, the less angst you'll feel:

1. Change how you act when around that person
2. Accept that the situation won't change and focus your energy elsewhere
3. Leave the situation.

For more ideas on how to stay positive and productive when faced with hot button behavior in others, read tips from Tina Su, Steve Pavlina, and Tammy Lenski. Plus read the three timeless classics on this topic: The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton, Dealing with People You Can't Stand by Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkman and Coping With Difficult People by Robert M. Bramson.

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Now if you want to take a big leap forward into deeper, more mutually satisfying relationships where you can increase your own self-awareness as you enable others to see sides of themselves that are hampering their growth, learn how to "turn difficult conversations into breakthroughs" for them. Read the insightful and actionable new book, The Discomfort Zone, by Outsmart Your Brain author Marcia Reynolds, coming out in October 13, 2014.