If You Can’t Strangle ’em, Here’s How To Co-exist

by Alice Cherbonnier

Dealing with Difficult People--
Common Problems and
Uncommon Solutions
by Sandra A. Crowe
1999: 261 pp., paperback, $13.95
New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. (Perigee)

     EVER HAVE TO put up with a person who’s so difficult to deal with you’re stressed and anxious?It could be a family member, a boss, or a co-worker. You can’t get away from the person, but you feel you can’t put up with the situation another minute. Too often, it eats you up inside, or you lash out and make things worse.
       Sandra Crowe, a communications consultant with a degree in behavioral psychology, has made a career out of helping organizations and individuals work together under less stress, despite their differences.
       Through her work, she says, “I realized the number one reason people were stressed out was because of the people they were working with, not the work itself. They feel trapped, and need coping skills.” For them, she has written Since Strangling Isn’t an Option.
       She has found that anger is a major problem in relationships. The anger, she believes, often comes from unrealistic expectations. “They’re much higher today, probably due to greater technology,” she says. “We expect things to work, we expect meaning in our lives and in our jobs. We get these kinds of messages from the media. And a subtle resentment begins to build, and it turns to anger.”
       In 1998 alone, 1.7 million people were assaulted in the workplace. “I tell people, ‘You’ve got to align yourself with reality’,” she says. “There are unfulfilled promises when you go to work for an organization. They didn’t make those promises, like how long you would have a job, but you assume them. I tell people ‘You’re looking in the wrong place for happiness. But if you take the attitude that everything in your life ‘happens for a reason,’ you see opportunity in change.”
       She counsels people not to read into other people’s motives and behaviors. “We have no idea what another person’s life is like.”
       Another cause of anger is a feeling of powerlessness. “I suggest doing something, channeling anger in a positive way. Work out, tell a friend. Find outlets!”
       It had to be asked: With the expression “going postal” now in the national lexicon, what can be done to prevent it?
       It turns out that the U.S. Postal Service has been one of Ms. Crowe’s clients. The violent acting out, she believes, “is because they think nobody listens to them, or values what they say. So they get a gun.”
       What can be done to prevent such outbursts of rage? “If I worked at the USPO, I’d have a program where you could go and talk about concerns. I’d require everyone to go, and frame it as a gift. And I’d give them a coach to help them perform at a higher level.”
       And if it costs more? “Then make the stamps cost thirty-four cents,” she says with cheerful reasonableness.
       Suppose a person has a “toxic boss”? Ms. Crowe suggests strategies to work around the troubling person. “Do it without permission, and ask forgiveness,” she suggests. “Or go laterally in the organization for permission. If you have trouble, find someone who does have a good relationship with the boss and ask that person to accompany you to be a witness, or ask that person to ask in your behalf, to be your champion.”
       The book provides model situations that apply suggested techniques for handling different kinds of difficult people--whose personality types are billed as “snakes,” “apes,” “bees,” “lizards,” and so on.
       As with many self-help books, much of the information in Strangling seems like common sense. But unfortunately, common sense often is lacking when dealing with difficult people who make you see red. Ms. Crowe offers “thought-into-action” scenarios as guidelines for handling difficult situations.
       For example, if someone treats you like a child, don’t respond like a child. Conduct yourself like an adult, Ms. Crowe says, and chances are the difficult person will perceive you differently and stop being patronizing.
       This breezy book almost makes you look forward to dealing with difficult people, just to try out some of Ms. Crowe’s suggestions.
       The book would probably work best, though, if it were sent anonymously to the person you’d like to strangle.

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This story was published on November 3, 1999.