Coping With Problem Behaviour

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 057
Publication Date: 11/96
Order#: 96-003
Last Reviewed: 11/97
History: Replaces 88-016 - "Coping With Problem Behaviour"
Written by: Carol Stewart-Kirkby - Communication Specialist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. How to Cope
  3. Hostile-aggressives
  4. Complainers
  5. Clams
  6. Super-agreeables
  7. Negativists
  8. Know-it-alls
  9. Indecisives
  10. Other problem behaviour at meetings
  11. In conclusion
  12. References


There's one in every crowd, the saying goes. And when it comes to working in groups of people, this saying rings true, for there is usually at least one difficult person in every organization.

We have all been to meetings or activities where the behaviour of a difficult person has disrupted or delayed the progress of the group. In most cases that problem behaviour is caused by bad news, lack of sleep, stress at home or other circumstances which will go away. This type of problem behaviour is transient or sporadic. The more serious type of problem behaviour is exhibited by difficult people who are difficult all the time, under all kinds of circumstances and with all the people they come into contact with. In other words, their problem behaviour will not go away tomorrow after a good night's rest.

How do you recognize a truly difficult person? Dr. Robert Bramson, author of the book Coping With Difficult People, suggests you ask yourself the following four questions:

  • Has something triggered the problem behaviour?
  • Is the behaviour this person exhibits with you typical of his/her behaviour with others?
  • Am I overreacting?
  • Will direct, open discussion relieve the situation?

If you answer yes to any one of these questions, chances are you are not primarily dealing with a difficult person, even if that person's behaviour is impossible now. If your answers are all no, then you are probably dealing with a non-transient, truly difficult person.

How to Cope

The definition of coping is "to contend on equal terms" and when dealing with difficult people this is particularly important. Difficult people have learned, often from childhood, that being difficult puts other people at a disadvantage. It's that disadvantage they count on to get the results they want. Possibly the most crucial thing you can learn from this Factsheet is not to let difficult people get the upper hand - remain on an equal basis with them by learning how to cope.

Some people react to difficult people by accepting their behaviour. They often find confrontation unpleasant and would prefer to overlook the matter completely. This only makes the acceptor feel like a martyr and reinforces the behaviour of the difficult individual. Learning to cope, on the other hand, enables you and the difficult person to get on with the meeting, activity, discussion, or job at hand. You create an environment where you can both function productively.

To make it easier to learn how to cope, Dr. Bramson suggests there are seven types of difficult people. This Factsheet will describe the characteristics of each of these types, how to cope with each in general, then more specifically the problem behaviour each type might display in a meeting, and how to cope with that.


These people are the bullies who are often abusive, abrupt and intimidating. They believe their "victims" are weak and deserve the treatment they give them. They are therefore stimulated by signs of weakness. There are three subtypes in this group.

Sherman Tank

The Sherman Tank needs to be right and will plow over people to prove a point. They are arrogant and will attack not just your idea or project, but you personally as well.

The most important aspect of coping with Sherman Tanks is to stand up for yourself. If you don't, they will see you as a person they don't need to pay any attention to -- you will fade into oblivion as far as they are concerned. If they confront you with yelling or crying, hold your ground and give them time to lose momentum (they will), and then get into the situation. You may have to interrupt Sherman Tanks to get into the conversation because they are not likely to pause to give you the chance. To get their attention, say their name in a loud, clear voice. Try to get your Sherman Tank to sit down because people seated are less likely to be aggressive. Next, present your own point of view, in an assertive fashion, by using phrases such as "In my opinion..."; "I disagree with you..." In this way, you are not telling the Sherman Tank what to do, but rather you are expressing your opinions.

In a meeting, Sherman Tanks are likely to show disinterest in what is being discussed if they are not in support of it. These people will read something else, fidget in their chair and will make it very clear to everyone this topic is a waste of time. They may even interrupt discussion with a statement like "What's next on the agenda?" If this happens, while you are chairing the meeting, don't let the balance of power swing to the Sherman Tank. If you give in to the Sherman Tank, whatever was being discussed will be tabled forever and the group's respect will vanish. Suggest to the Sherman Tank that the group feels this item is important (otherwise it wouldn't be on the agenda) and the discussion will continue. Remind Sherman Tanks they can participate in the discussion and present their side of the issue. Once involved in the discussion, the Sherman Tank may become highly argumentative. Remember to control your temper - if you remain calm, it's likely the rest of the group will too. Try to find merit in one of his/her points, express your agreement and move on to others. If the Sherman Tank makes an incorrect statement, toss it out to the group and let them turn it down.


Snipers use innuendoes, under-their-breath remarks and teasing to undermine others. These people are not as obvious as the Sherman Tank, but their behaviour can be just as destructive. Snipers are skilled at using their problem behaviour in environments where the victim is least likely to give a rebuttal, for instance in a meeting or at a social function, lest a scene result. Snipers, like Sherman Tanks, feel very strongly about how others should think and act.

The first step in coping with Snipers is to force them out into the open. Ask questions like, "That sounded like a dig. Was it?" or "What did you mean when you turned your thumbs down while I was making my presentation?" Then, if your Sniper responds by ridiculing you even further, say something like, "Sounds like you are ridiculing me. Are you?" It is important when dealing with Snipers to give them an alternative to a direct conflict. That is why you ask questions rather than make statements. By asking the questions, you have stood up to the Sniper and are ready to take the next step towards coping. Don't readily agree with the Sniper's criticisms. Ask the rest of your group if the Sniper's criticisms are correct or incorrect. If they are incorrect, then your credibility with the Sniper and the group remains in-tact. If they are correct, then try to discover the real problem and deal with it.

In a meeting, Snipers may be side conversationalists, and their conversation may or may not be related to the topic at hand. Call on Snipers by name, restate the last opinion or remark expressed by a group member, and ask their opinion on it. If you are in the habit of moving around the room, saunter over and stand casually behind the talkers. (Do not make this too obvious.)


The Exploder can best be described as the adult throwing a temper tantrum. These tantrums are filled with anger and rage which seems barely under control. Quite often, this behaviour erupts during what began as a friendly and reasonable conversation. Usually, Exploders feel threatened or have had their plans and ideas thwarted.

To cope with an Exploder, wait for the outburst to come to an end. It is common for Exploders to suddenly realize where they are and what they are doing and then to quiet very quickly. But, if there doesn't seem to be an imminent pause in the explosion, you should try to bring it to a close. Try saying "Right! Right!" "Wait a minute!" or "Yes! Yes!" with enough loudness that they can hear. Suddenly standing up may also catch their attention long enough to break the tantrum. Once Exploders have settled down, make sure they know you take them seriously by saying things like "I can see this is very important to you and I would like to talk about it, but not like this."

If you find yourself in the middle of a meeting and dealing with an Exploder, the methods of coping already outlined can be useful. Another technique which may be helpful is called mirroring. You get the Exploder's attention by speaking loudly as already mentioned; then, gradually lower your voice. You will find the Exploder will follow your example. Suggesting a time to discuss the situation after the meeting is a good idea.


Complainers find fault with everything. And reading between the complaints, these people are usually suggesting that someone, probably you, should do something about them. Pay attention to their conversation. Often it is strung together with ands and buts - thoughts following one after the other without pause.

It can be difficult to recognize a true Complainer. They are skilled at stating problems in such an accusatory manner that it is hard to separate genuine problems from complaints. And people around them become defensive because they know the Complainer will be the first to blame them if something goes wrong. Complainers themselves feel powerless to correct the situations they complain about. Relying on others to fix the problems perpetuates their own beliefs that they are without blame or fault.

The one successful way of coping with Complainers is to help them take a problem-solving perspective toward their complaints. The first step is to listen to their complaints. Then acknowledge what they are saying by repeating it back to them, and you may have to interrupt them to do this. As you acknowledge, use specific examples to avoid words like never and always - two of the Complainer's favorites. For instance, include days and times when the situations took place which are irking the Complainer. Don't agree with the Complainer, and there is a difference between acknowledge and agree. Agreeing with the Complainer is admitting your role in the problems. You are validating the belief that they are blameless and the responsibility is all yours.

Now, move quickly into problem-solving. Ask the Complainer questions to help identify the real source of the problem. If there are unknown facts, suggest the Complainer go on a limited fact-finding mission. More facts could help to set the Complainer straight, or perhaps illuminate a real problem which you can work on together. Finally, help the Complainer to see the other side of the situation.

In a meeting, a Complainer may end up monopolizing the agenda because he/she has something negative to say about every item. Try to avoid letting this happen. As chair, indicate there are time restrictions the group is facing in order to complete the allotted agenda. Ask other members of the organization to answer the complaints. If the Complainer is complaining about a policy of the organization, point out the policy can't be changed at the meeting but you would be happy to discuss it with him/her privately later.


These people react to questions you have posed, controversial statements you have made, and indeed any situation they deem disagreeable, by clamming up. Just when you want a response, they may grunt, give a no or a yes or more likely say nothing.

It is difficult to discern a Clam from a quiet person. However, quiet people are not likely to avoid direct questions, whereas Clams are. For instance, you have asked a colleague to not park so close to your car in the company parking lot. A Clam will say nothing. A quiet person will at least respond in some way.

The biggest problem in dealing with Clams is you don't know what the silence or lack of response means; therefore, the best way to cope with Clams is to get them to talk. To do this, ask open-ended questions - where a yes or no answer will not suffice. Questions like "How do you feel about this?" or "What are your ideas?" are good starters. Add to those questions a friendly, silent stare to encourage answers. To stop yourself from jumping in with more conversation, be to the point and say something like "I expected you to say something, John, and you're not. What does that mean?" (another open-ended question). If you are still at an impasse, after returning to your friendly, silent stare, begin to give your thoughts, observations or ideas on the matter and once again, end with an open-ended question. Be prepared at this point, with a particularly unrelenting Clam, to hear something like "Can I go now?" from them. "Not yet, I still have some other things on my mind," is a good response. If you are this far along with a Clam, and still not getting anywhere, using the following statements or questions may help the Clam to get started.

"What's the conflict?"

"You look distressed."

"Don't worry about starting at the beginning. What's on your mind right now?"

If and when your Clam opens, be attentive to what he/she has to say.

In a meeting, a Clam reacts the same way as on a one-to-one basis. He or she will sit staring fixedly at the floor or wall and will not say a thing. (If this happens at one meeting, ignore it; but if it continues, take action.) Talk to the person privately, as outlined above, and then refer to one of his/her ideas in the meeting to help bolster confidence and draw out the Clam. Suggest the Clam work on a committee of your organization and ask him/her to report back at an upcoming meeting. Another technique is to make a written note of the Clam's point in a meeting and then refer to it later in the meeting, to once again help him/her to open up.


What is so difficult about working with someone who is always pleasant and supportive of your ideas and projects? Nothing, until you want that person to do something for you.

Super-Agreeables want to be liked and accepted by everyone, so to achieve this they are outgoing, sociable and very personable. However, the danger here is they will agree with you about one thing and then agree with the next person whose ideas are contrary to yours. As well, the Super-Agreeable will volunteer to do every job and get none of them done.

In coping with Super-Agreeables, it is important to make them feel safe enough to disagree with you -- you will still like them if they don't volunteer for that activity. Tell them directly you value them as a person and ask questions or make comments about family, hobbies or apparel. Don't let Super-Agreeables make unrealistic commitments. Ask them if there will be a problem fulfilling that obligation. And last but not least with Super-Agreeables, listen to their humor because although said in jest, it is often what they are really thinking or feeling.

In a meeting, Super-Agreeables, by volunteering for all kinds of responsibilities, may be hindering the development of the group as a whole. Thank them for volunteering, but point out they already have a lot on the go. Suggest other group members should be sharing the load. Remember, Super-Agreeables crave your acceptance, so don't embarrass them in front of the group, but just work at keeping them in check.


Negativists, or Wet Blankets, are often very capable people. However, they feel very strongly that unless a project is in their hands, it will fail. You are likely to hear Negativists saying things like "We tried that before and it didn't work then. Why should it work now?" Negativists have the ability to dampen everyone's attitude towards a project. Instead of coming from a meeting with an action plan, a Negativist will spread feelings of disappointment and helplessness. And the more you try to solve a problem or improve a situation, the more negative they become.

Negativists believe that people in power don't care or are self-serving; as a result, they strongly believe their negative comments.

When coping with Negativists, don't try to persuade them out of their pessimism. Instead, point out the successes in solving similar situations in the past. If a new idea or project is being considered, quickly point out the possible negative repercussions yourself and then include the Negativist in the discussion which you are leading. If it seems impossible to get the Negativist seeing things your way, then you may have to take action on your own and simply announce your plans to the Negativist.

In a meeting, it is very important to be aware of other group members being dragged down by the Negativist. Don't let Negativists control the discussion by having something negative to say about all your plans and ideas. Instead, ask others to comment on the potential problems. Pick people in the group who you know are realistic and objective. And, if something has gone wrong, ask how the mistake can be avoided in the future rather than harping on the failure.


Know-It-Alls believe they are superior to others and show it by being pompous and condescending. There are two types of Know-It-Alls.


Bulldozers are usually experts who don't know how to work/deal with other people. They feel strongly that the more they know, the better off they will be. They also feel that they control their own destiny. As a result, the ideas and knowledge of others are deemed irrelevant.

To cope with Bulldozers, you have to get them to consider alternatives without directly challenging their expertise which they interpret as a personal attack. Your first step is to do your homework -- prepare yourself with accurate facts before presenting the plan to a Bulldozer. Listen carefully to Bulldozers and then paraphrase back to them what they said. This confirms your comprehension of the matter to the Bulldozer. Next, ask questions to introduce the possible alternatives, prefacing them with statements like "I realize this may not be what we will be doing a year from now, but could we consider this..."

When coping with a Bulldozer, there is a tendency to become one! If you feel you are equally competent, be wary of getting engaged in a one-on-one battle. Be aware of Bulldozer behaviour in yourself.

Don't confront a Bulldozer in a meeting setting. Instead, adopt some of the techniques above. If your Bulldozer is attempting to take over the meeting, acknowledge the Bulldozer's competency, then ask others for their thoughts. Suggest the organization is based on the democratic principle of an equal voice for all members.


Balloons, like Bulldozers, want respect and admiration from others based on their expertise, but they are faking -- they aren't really experts at all. They are often unaware that they are talking about something they don't know much about. Balloons are usually quite curious and are good collectors of information. This characteristic is a hindrance when the information they present to you is only half the story.

To cope with a Balloon, state the correct facts as explicitly as possible, as your perception of the situation. Provide an escape route for the Balloon. At some point in the conversation, the Balloon will realize you are an expert and will panic. Allow them to save themselves from embarrassment.

Of all the difficult people detailed so far, the Balloon represents the least of your worries. In a group setting, a Balloon is easily pinpointed by most members and dealt with as an annoyance which is endured. A Balloon will be offended if confronted in front of the group. If your Balloon is getting out-of-hand, take him/her aside after the meeting and present him/her with the actual facts.


Indecisives, or Stallers, are very helpful people; however, they put off making decisions which might upset someone. The serious problem here is that indecisiveness can work -- most unmade decisions become irrelevant through time. For Indecisives, not making a decision is a compromise between being honest and not hurting someone.

To cope with Indecisives, try to make it easier for them to tell you why they find it so difficult to make a decision. What are their reservations or conflicts? Listen carefully for hesitancy or omissions which may provide clues to problem areas. Once the problems have surfaced, help the Indecisives to solve them. If the problem is you, acknowledge any difficulties in the past, state the facts about those difficulties and ask for their help. If you are not part of the problem, help the Indecisive to look objectively at the facts. Help the Indecisive to put the possible solutions in order of priority. Once the decision has been made, give your support.

It may take many meetings to get an Indecisive to participate in group decision-making. It's likely an Indecisive will inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, agree with everything everyone has said. This can be very frustrating. Solving this problem may require a face-to-face discussion with the Indecisive away from the group. Another alternative is to give the Indecisive a job which will force a decision. This may be as co-ordinator of a mall display and the decisions may include size of the display, content or exact location, for example.

Other Problem Behaviour at Meetings

Talks too much

There are lots of reasons why people talk too much. The best way to handle it is to wait for talkers to take a breath, thank them for their contribution, then bring the group back to the topic at hand and continue on with the meeting. Other options are

  • assign the talkative person to take notes
  • suggest everyone should be heard on the topic
  • set a good example yourself by not monopolizing discussion


This person is either misinformed or doesn't understand the topic. It is important to be tactful. Help the person to convey his/her ideas by rephrasing his/her words into something more understandable. Refer to the agenda to point out the Rambler is a "little" off topic.

Personality Clash

When members of your group clash with one another, the end result can be a group divided. Emphasize their points of agreement and draw attention to objective facts. Ask specific questions about the matter and encourage other group members into the discussion to take the focus away from the feuders. If all else fails, tell them personalities should be left out of the discussion.

In Conclusion

This Factsheet outlines difficult personalities, and methods of coping with their associated behaviour. You can use this knowledge for the betterment of your organization, your work environment or your family life. A good leader is one who can identify the problem behaviour and quickly correct the situation in a positive way for the good of everyone involved.


Coping With Difficult People. Bramson, Robert M. Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1981.

Skills For Working Together - Problem behaviour. Moore, Dan E. and Lee Hamilton. Cooperative Extension Service, College of Agriculture, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1986.

Training: The Magazine of Human Resource Development. "Working with Jerks". Zemke, Ron. Lakewood Publications Incorporated, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 1987.

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