Are difficult people born that way?
Well, how long is a piece of string and how long do you have? The short answer is, No. Despite what geneticists tell us there is plenty of evidence that while some behavioural characteristics are established at birth it is what we learn growing up that generates our behaviour and perspective, our values and outlook and, just as importantly, our personal baggage. Our behaviour is learned and it can be unlearned. Unfortunately the older we get the harder it usually is to unlearn some habits we have. Why? Well, the answer relates to the two principle differences between child and adult behaviour – as we grow we have more economic independence and more personal baggage. It’s not any more complicated than that. The majority of difficult people whether aggressive or overly submissive, stubborn or inconsistent, obsessively driven or too passive have the root cause of their behaviour based on lessons learned while growing up during our formative years of childhood, adolescence and our first career experiences. Some pretty big lessons regarding how we manage conflict in our lives including frustration, resistance, opposition and disagreement are learned then. In particular we start to develop what we are afraid of, how we gain attention from others, what we look for in order to feel safe and secure, and we identify our first role models that define for us what behaviours are OK and not OK, that get us what we want and not want.
While we are a product of our environment, however, we are not trapped within it. The power of individual choice means we can rationalise and change our circumstances, our outlook, and our perspective on people and the situation at the time. In other words we remain open to learning and, if wise, recognise what baggage holds us back and what pushes us forward constructively when we manage it well. The key here is the extent to which we are able to remove our emotions from our behavioural choices. For some of us we remain so emotionally tied up in what our own behaviour and the behaviour of others means that change becomes incredibly difficult. This is because being “difficult” (or at least the pattern of behaviour(s) that others find problematic) has become entrenched deep in our psyche as the only way we know of staying psychologically safe, even at others expense. And these people will not change without external assistance or an epiphany – what I call a light bulb moment. Managing such people – whether a peer, a manager or an employee – is best achieved through two means.
First, ensuring that we are resilient and healthy enough to have the reserves of energy and intellect to handle the emotional challenges of such people when they arise as best we can. Secondly, realising that although all behaviour is learned and can therefore be unlearned, all behaviour also meets an underlying need. We change our behaviour when the need it is meeting disappears or when we recognise that that need is best met through another means (whether that need be respect, affection, intimacy, status or whatever). The only way to identify the needs that bad behaviour is meeting is to understand people more than we already do – a hard but necessary step in giving us the edge in managing the difficult peope around us. This can be done through getting to know people more than we already do, listening more to what is said and not said, and asking around. Knowing why people are difficult gives an advantage in managing them effectively.