Review + Notes: Dealing With People You Can’t Stand by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner

How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst

In order to excel in business you must be able to work effectively with the people around you. Unfortunately, through the course of everyday business you are bound to run into those individuals that make productivity difficult if not down right impossible. The key to succeeding in these situations is to learn how to correctly communicate with difficult people.

In the book Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner, authors and professional speakers who’s clients include AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and Texaco, detail the main characteristics of difficult people and outline the key strategies for dealing with the ten most difficult behaviors.

In the first section- Getting to Know the People You Can’t Stand- Brinkman and Kirschner describe the ten most common unwanted behaviors.

In the second section- Surviving Through Skillful Communication- the authors define the communication skills necessary to relate with, listen to, and be heard by difficult people.

And finally, in section three — Bringing Out the Best in People at Their Worst — Brinkman and Kirschner offer specific skills and strategies for dealing with the behavior of the difficult person you are facing at work or in life.

Section One: Getting to Know the People You Can’t Stand

According to Brinkman and Kirschner’s research there is a certain consensus in polite society about who difficult people are and what it is they do that others find difficult. So, in section one they outline the ten specific difficult behavior patterns that represent normal people at their worst. Use these behavior pattern descriptions to gain a better understanding of the difficult person you are trying to deal with.

The Tank. The Tank is confrontational and angry, the ultimate in pushy and aggressive behavior. This is the individual that yells and hurls insults in a mistaken belief that he is motivating people to get the task done.

The Sniper. Whether through rude comments, biting sarcasm, or a well-timed roll of the eyes, making you look foolish is the sniper’s specialty. This is the individual that uses snide remarks to control others that he sees as weak or lazy.

The Grenade. After a brief period of calm, the grenade explodes into unfocused ranting about things that have nothing to do with the present circumstances. This is the individual that tries hard to get appreciated by people but always seems to get thwarted in his efforts. The minute he feels his goals slipping away this individual explodes with fury in a misdirected effort to defend himself against feelings of unimportance.

The Know-It-All. Seldom in doubt, the know-it-all has a low tolerance for correction and contradiction. If something goes wrong, however, the know-it-all will speak with the same authority about who’s to blame — you! This is the individual that wants to get the task done, but only wants it done in his own way, no suggestions or alternative ideas allowed.

The Think-They-Know-It-All. Think-they-know-it-alls can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but they can fool some of the people enough of the time, and enough of the people all of the time — all for the sake of getting some attention. This is the individual that comes across as pushy but is really just trying to get the attention he feels he deserves but never receives.

The Yes Person. In an effort to please people and avoid confrontation, yes people say “yes” without thinking things through. They react to the latest demands on their time by forgetting prior commitments and over commit until they have no time for themselves. Then they become resentful. This is the individual that is always trying to please everyone else in an effort to get approval. Unfortunately, the plan usually backfires when the yes person over commits and lets everyone down.

The Maybe Person. In a moment of decision, the maybe person procrastinates in the hope that a better choice will present itself. Sadly, with most decisions, there comes a point when it is too little, too late, and the decision makes itself. This is the individual that is so afraid of making the wrong decision and ruining their chances of getting along with others that they never make any decisions.

The Nothing Person. No verbal feedback, no nonverbal feedback. Nothing. What else could you expect from the nothing person. This is the individual that has nothing to say about anything because he fears that by voicing his opinion he will rock the boat and banish his hopes of getting along with others.

The No Person. More deadly to morale than a speeding bullet, able to defeat big ideas with a single syllable. Disguised as a mild mannered normal person, the no person fights a never-ending battle for futility, hopelessness, and despair. This is the individual that wants to get every task done right and when sensing shortcomings in others he becomes negative in a misdirected attempt to “show” everyone else how many things could go wrong if the plan isn’t orchestrated exactly how he sees fit.

The Whiner. Whiners feel helpless and overwhelmed by an unfair world. Their standard is perfection, and no one and nothing measures up to it. But misery loves company, so they bring their problems to you. Offering solutions makes you bad company, so their whining escalates. This is the individual that has a vague idea that things should be different than they are but has no idea or suggestions for how to change things. By whining about the circumstances he feels that he is helping get the task done right by pointing out all of the wrongs.

Section Two: Surviving Through Skillful Communication

According to the authors, two of the most essential communication skills for dealing with difficult people are “blending” and “redirecting.” Blending is when you alter your behavior to reduce the differences between you and the difficult person in order move towards more common ground. Redirecting is when you use rapport to change the direction of the interaction towards more common ground.

By using both of these communication skills when dealing with difficult people you avoid conflict and create a cooperative atmosphere. For example, if you are dealing with someone with a focus on getting the task done you need to first blend with the individual by using words that communicate your understanding of this intent (“I realize the importance of getting this project finished and I have some ideas on how to get it done quickly”). Then keep all communication with this individual brief and to the point in order to model his hurried behavior. Finally, in order to redirect the interaction from hurried and sloppy to quick and correct interject facts and details into your communications that prove that you can also get the task right as you move quickly to get it done.

If you are dealing with someone whose sole focus is to get the task right you can blend by expressing your understanding of this intent in words (“I may need a few extra minutes to get those numbers to you, I want to take the time to make sure I have every detail right”), and using as many facts and details as possible in your communications. Once you have established a connection you can redirect this individual’s behavior by offering deadlines that must be met (“Even though I will be taking extra time to ensure that these numbers are correct I will still have the report done by 3. Then, I believe we should set a deadline of 5 pm to look over the report. This way we will have four hours tomorrow before the report is actually due to make any corrections or edits”).

If you are dealing with an individual who’s main focus is on getting along with people first, use your communication efforts to let him know that you care about him with personal questions (“I just remembered that your son’s birthday was last Friday. How did the party go?”). Once the individual is at ease and trusts that you are both getting along, redirect the interaction by stating the benefits of getting the task done right and on time (“If we get this project finished by five and don’t make any huge mistakes then everyone will know how well we work together!”).

Finally, if you are dealing with an individual who is intently focused on getting appreciation from people you will need to use your blending efforts to let them know you value their ideas (“Great job on that last report, the team couldn’t have finished on time without your hard work”). Then redirect their efforts from getting attention to getting the job done right and on time (“If you do an even better job on this report, and get it done by the deadline, the team is really going to recognize your talents”).

By first blending with your difficult person by acknowledging their feelings and main intent and then redirecting the situation by tying their main intent in with the actual task at hand you will quickly increase cooperation, decrease misunderstanding, and increase productivity.

Section Three: Bringing Out the Best in People at Their Worst

Sometimes general blending and redirecting techniques won’t be enough to actually help you deal with the difficult individual. In some cases you will need to tailor your specific behavior to the actual behavior the individuals are exhibiting at the time. To do this well you need a detailed action plan for dealing with each individual personality trait specifically.

Remember that The Tank personality — full of verbal attacks and aggressive behavior — is solely motivated by a desire to get things done. If a tank feels that you are sliding off course or obstructing the team from finishing a task he will attempt to assert his control over you through aggression. Use the following action plan to diffuse the situation and deal with the tank.

Hold your ground. Instead of running away or letting loose with your own temper simply hold your ground (maintain eye contact, control your breathing, stay calm and silent) until the tank is done yelling. This will show the tank that you cannot be intimidated while allowing him to get what is bothering him off of his chest. When you do not back down in his presence or fight back with anger you will gain his respect.

Interrupt the attack. If the attack continues despite your silence it may be time to interrupt the attack. While the tank is yelling speak their name evenly over and over until you have their attention. By doing so calmly but determinately you will show assertiveness without making the tank feel personally attacked.

Quickly backtrack the main point. Once you have the tank’s attention it is time to return the conversation to the original problem. Doing this will let the tank know that you heard his main point.

Aim for the bottom line and fire. State your side of things and your willingness to cooperate. “I know that you feel I should be further along in the project by now, but by taking the extra time on this step I feel I am saving time, money, and unnecessary effort in the future. By continuing my course I will definitely have the project completed by the deadline.”

Peace with honor. After stating your point of view allow the tank to have the last word. He may see that you are indeed on track and want to back down from his verbal assault but if he feels challenged he will continue. Let him close the conversation and leave with honor.

The action plan for dealing The Sniper revolves around defusing his behavior. A sniper will try to make you look incompetent to eliminate the obstacle he perceives that you represent. The more you let his comments bother you, the more vulnerable you are.

Stop, look, backtrack. The quickest way to diffuse an uncomfortable situation caused by the sniper is to calmly acknowledge the action in a way that shows that you are unaffected by it. For example, if the sniper rolls his eyes during your presentation, stop, make eye contact with the sniper, roll your own eyes, and then move on as if nothing has happened.

Use searchlight questions. After your presentation, stop the sniper and ask for a reason behind his gesture. “When you rolled your eyes during my presentation what were you really trying to convey?” By focusing on their reason for the action, not your reaction to it, you can draw out the problem and hopefully address it.

Use tank strategy if needed. If the sniper gets defensive and starts attacking you — listing all of the reasons you are the problem — then stay calm and listen. He is actually giving you what you want — a description of why he is unhappy with you or your actions.

Go on a grievance patrol. If, instead, the sniper ignores your searchlight question and dismisses you with more sarcasm, you may need to dig deeper to find his grievance against you. Try to catch the sniper alone or schedule a private meeting where you can discuss his problems with you and devise a solution.

Suggest a civil future. Once you know why the sniper attacks, suggest a better way to handle the problem. “I understand that you think I am {insert his concerns here}. However, if you could come talk to me privately next time, I promise to hear you out and work towards a compromise that helps ease your concerns.”

When dealing with A Know-It-All you need an action plan that shows you know your stuff. If the know-it-all senses any inaccuracies in your thinking they will immediately discount your entire idea.

Backtrack respectfully. The know-it-all needs to know that you understand their plan. Repeat their ideas to show you get it before broaching your own suggestions.

Blend with their doubts and desires. Seek out their criteria for what makes an idea doable and stress the ways that your suggestion takes those factors into account.

Present your views indirectly. Instead of stating your ideas as fact try softening them with phrases like “maybe this could work” or “I was just wondering if.” This will keep the challenge out of your suggestion and allow the individual to think through the idea and feel as though they have come up with part of the solution.

Turn them into mentors. If you acknowledge the know-it-all’s expertise and ask them for guidance they will see you as less of a threat. Once you have a connection established it will be easier to get the know-it-all to consider your suggestions.

When dealing with A Think-They-Know-It-All personality it is important to remember that they need attention. In this case your action plan is to give them attention but then to redirect their focus onto solutions that actually work.

Give them a little attention. No matter how ridiculous or unfounded their suggestion, find something that you can recognize the individual for. You do not have to agree with the idea, just thank the individual for contributing.

Clarify for specifics. Once you have given them the attention they need, ask them to clarify the specifics of their plan. This will help you indirectly point out the areas of the idea that will not work and let them see for themselves the problems with their solutions.

Tell it like it is. After listening to their explanations and acknowledging their effort use “I” statements (a way of communicating about a problem to another person without accusing them of being the cause of the problem) to explain why the plan won’t work. Use printed facts, articles, or supporting documents whenever possible to add evidence to your information and reduce defensiveness.

Give them a break. When you show facts to back up your idea, the think-they-know-it-all may feel as though it is obvious to everyone present that you know what you are talking about and they don’t. Help them save face by giving them a way out. “I just found this article today so I am sure you haven’t seen it yet. When we add in these facts I am sure we will see this the same way.”

Break the cycle. In your future dealings with this individual look for things that they do right and pile on the recognition. Once their good behavior is adequately rewarded their bad behavior will subside.

The Grenade personality also seeks attention and explodes when they don’t get it. Diffuse the grenade with this action plan.

  • Get their attention. Speak loudly and state their name but keep your tone friendly.
  • Aim for the heart. Show that you care. Repeat their concerns, concentrating on the actual problem and not on the multiple generalizations that they usually resort to when exploding.
  • Reduce intensity. If you show real concern the grenade will be taken aback and actually calm down for a moment to hear the rest of what you have to say.
  • Time off for good behavior. Now that the grenade is a little more clam, suggest a break to give both of your emotions time to settle before you begin discussing the problem again.
  • Grenade prevention. Once you both sit down for a calm, focused discussion ask the grenade exactly what would need to happen for them to feel more appreciated. Ask detailed questions and keep digging until you discover exactly what they need. Once you know what they need to succeed, take steps to ensure that they get it.

Dealing with A Yes Person can be difficult because it is easy to let them handle the work load but you need assurances that they will actually get the task done. The following action plan will help your yes person complete commitments without overloading themselves.

  • Make it safe to be honest. The yes person will automatically say yes to any request in order to avoid not being liked. However, you need to let the yes person know that it is ok to say no if the situation warrants it. “Taking on this task is nice, but people appreciate your actions more if you only take on what you can do a superb job at.”
  • Talk honestly. Yes people take on everything in order to get along and then blow up when no one is grateful for what they did or attempted to do. Talk to the yes person and find out what makes them angry. Then, in a friendly manner point out why they may not being forming the relationships they want. “I understand why you would be mad at Bob for not recognizing your work, but since you had so many other commitments his project was late and he couldn’t see past that to show appreciation for the good work you did.”
  • Help them learn to plan. The yes person will continue to want to take on everything, and in the process continue to miss deadlines and not keep commitments, unless you help them plan a new course of action. Show them alternatives. “I understand that you want to help and make things easier for everyone else. However, you do not have to take over the project. You could just agree to be part of the team and really concentrate on your section of the task.”
  • Ensure commitment. Before agreeing to give them the next task, ensure that they will really get it done. Ask them to promise to get the task done, ask them to summarize the task and their commitment to it, have them write that commitment down, give them a solid deadline, and make sure that they understand the consequences if it is missed.

The action plan for dealing with A Maybe Person is very similar to that of dealing with the yes personality. However, with this individual your focus is more on forcing them to actually make a commitment or decision, not so much on the actual follow-through.

  • Establish and maintain the comfort zone. Maybe people avoid making decisions for fear of not getting along with others. If you force them to make a decision they may immediately change that decision in the presence of others with different agendas. Stressing that you would rather the individual be honest with you than just agree in order to keep the peace will help them feel more comfortable presenting their true opinion.
  • Use a decision-making system. Once they have listed all of their options, have them make a list of the ones that are most promising. Then, have them write down the pros and cons of each option. This will help them choose the best direction or at least eliminate the most negative ones.
  • Reassure and then ensure follow-through. Once your maybe person has made their own decision remind them that there is no such things as a perfect decision.
  • Strengthen the relationship. Show the maybe person that you understand, and that you will appreciate their efforts even if they make an occasional mistake. Then they will gain the confidence necessary to make decisions without your guidance.

The goal for the action plan of dealing with A Nothing Person is getting them say something. You need their information, their feedback, or their opinions to get a task done so you need to interact with them.

  • Plan enough time. Nothing people are not going to change their behavior overnight. In order to gain their trust and get them to open up to you, you must plan consistent blocks of time to engage in conversation. The authors recommend scheduling “15-minute communication opportunities” with your nothing person where you attempt to get feedback until the nothing person finally starts talking.
  • Ask open-ended questions. To further get a nothing person talking ask open-ended questions and wait while making eye contact for a response. You may have to wait longer than you normally would, but eventually the nothing person will say something just to get the conversation going again.
  • Lighten it up. If your nothing person is still not responding you may try adding a little humor. While the nothing person sits there ignoring your question or pretending to think, make absurd guesses at their answer. If you can get them to laugh they may relax enough to venture an opinion.
  • Guess. If you still aren’t getting a response you may try to guess what the nothing person would like to suggest but is afraid to say. If you get close the nothing person may open up and elaborate after sensing that you are both on the same page.
  • Show the future. Finally, when all else fails you may be able to get a nothing person to speak up if you outline the consequences of their silence. For example, saying “Fine, don’t talk. Just imagine how many things can go wrong on this project because we didn’t have your input,” may jolt a nothing person into speaking.

The action plan for dealing with A No Person involves moving their attitude from fault finding to problem solving.

  • Go with the flow. Never try to convince a no person that things are not that negative, this approach only makes the no person work harder to convince you that things could get even worse.
  • Use the person as a resource. By letting the no person fulfill the negative role in every interaction you can use their opinions as an early warning system. Have a new idea for a process or product? Run the idea by your no person. Then, use their negative ramblings to weed out the possible problems and solve them before going ahead with the plan.
  • Go for the polarity response. Since no people are coming from an adversarial position, you may be able to use their natural tendency to disagree against them. For example, before asking for a no person’s opinion say: “Here’s my idea but I don’t really think it will work because…” and then list all of the negatives. The no person might try to convince you why the plan is good and point out the solid angles.

When dealing with A Whiner you need an action plan that takes the person from complainer to problem solver.

  • Listen for the main points. Since no one really listens to a whiner for long it can be easy to miss the good points that they do have. Listen carefully and list the main points of the complaint.
  • Interrupt and get specific. Once you have a grasp on the main points, interrupt the whiner and ask for specifics. If they have specifics, move on to the next step. If they don’t, assign them the task of gathering more information on each point before your next discussion.
  • Shift the focus to solutions. Once they can point out specific problems ask them how they want to solve them. For example, if they feel as though they are doing too much of the work on the project, ask them to specifically tell you how they would more fairly distribute the work load amongst the team.
  • Show the whiner the future. Once you have given a whiner something specific to focus on, make that problem their responsibility. For example, assign them the task of tracking the workloads of the team for the next two weeks. By allowing them to take concrete action in solving the problem you can show them that positive change is possible in the future.
  • Draw the line. If the previous steps don’t work and you just can’t stop your whiner from complaining you may need to draw the line. Try statements like: “If you do not want to work with me on finding solutions, that is your decision. However, I do not want to hear any more of your complaining. When you are ready to focus on solutions, and solutions only, I will be here.”


Focusing on the task at hand can be tough in the presence of difficult people, especially if you meet their worst behavior with bad behavior of your own. By adhering to the techniques for dealing with people you can’t stand you can bring out the best in your team or the people around you and increase your own productivity and success at the same time. It’s a win-win if there ever was one.

2 Responses to “Review + Notes: Dealing With People You Can’t Stand by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner”
  1. Peter Gaunt June 28, 2013
  2. Col P January 7, 2015

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