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Effective ways to deflect hostility.

Effective ways to deflect hostility

Have you ever answered the telephone in your laboratory only to get an earful from an irate caller? Had that caller ever screamed and carried on before? Does any colleague or client repeatedly project hostility, prickling with a combination of resentment, accusation, and anger under many different circumstances? If so, you have dealt with hostile-aggressive behavior, a fairly common experience that is difficult to address calmly because it brings out similar behavior in ourselves.

Hostile-aggressives break down humanity into two camps: the strong and the weak. They tend to respect the former and walk all over the latter. Education and status have relatively little effect on these people's interactions with others. A plucky clerk may get along with them better than a highly proficient but soft-spoken laboratory supervisor with a master's degree. Perhaps they feel less threatened by the clerk; perhaps they respond more positively to the clerk's sassy replies. Use the following techniques to turn away their wrath. * Stand up to them. The best way to handle hostile-agressives is to stand firm. Their goal is to win at any cost. In the lab, this just won't do. Meet the advance of these human tanks by emulating the Chinese student in Tiananmen Square: Stare them down.

Taking such a stance may require you to echo aggressive verbal or nonverbal communication. If the person looms over you, stand tall. If the person yells at you, you may not be able to yell back, but don't hang your head. Assert yourself. * Don't fight. While it is important to stand up for yourself, avoid being combative. Use the "firm adult" component of your personality, as described in Part I of this series (MLO, September). Speak in a monotone. Quote facts and figures.

Remaining even-tempered may spoil the challenge of dealing with your antagonist; but if you fight, who will win? Fighting creates drama, which in this sense is unwelcome in the workplace. Angry scenes deplete emotional energy and establish a triangle with a cast of two. The person who has the most power is cast as the persecutor, while the less powerful one plays rescuer and victim. In the end, everyone feels powerless and thus becomes a victim.

The most useful role to assume is that of the empowerer, who asks the questions. To play this part, speak in an unemotional voice and ignore everything but the facts. Pay no attention to profanity, tone of voice, or insults. You may rightfully think, "He shouldn't talk to me that way" or "I shouldn't have to listen to this kind of language." True, but that response leads straight to the "should" trap, described in the first part of this series, in which you keep wishing the other person would be different. In reality, the hostile-aggressive has gotten his way in the past by throwing temper tantrums. He may owe much of his professional success to his antisocial behavior. * Attempt a win-win plan. A Japanese approach to conflict resolution is aikido. This four-step strategy, detailed in "Giving In to Get Your Way" by Terry Dobson and "The Magic of Conflict" by Thomas Crum, runs as follows:

[Paragraph]Step 1. Present a nonverbal mirror image of the other person. Talk at the same rate of speed, in the same volume and tone, and with the same emphasis. This technique, called pacing, signals your understanding of the urgency and importance of the other person's message.

[Paragraph]Step 2. Phrase your response to make the other person verbally correct. The typical approach, proving the adversary wrong, only increases his hostility. The hostile-aggressive person truly believes he is right. Let him. Agreement may take the form of content, feelings, or relationship: "You are correct when you say the values are calculated that way." "I don't blame you for being angry. This is a disaster for both of us." "You're right; you have done business with this laboratory since it opened. In fact, you were one of our first clients."

Aikido involves looking at a situation from the other person's perspective. This technique will seem foreign at first. Take a deep breath, relax, and try to get on the same wavelength as the hostile person before you. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were in his place. What is important to that person? Does he feel threatened? Fearful?

What is your antagonist's information is factually incorrect? You can make it seem correct by agreeing with the person's feelings or the importance of his or her relationship to you. Don't agree with the information stated unless that would be appropriate. Manipulation won't win the respect of the person with a hostile-aggressive personality. Once you lose your credibility, he will treat you in a subservient manner.

You may be unable to make the hostile-aggressive's feelings right. Since you can't know how someone else feels, don't say "I know how you feel." Furthermore, he probably doesn't really care. Focus on his feelings and agree with them. Don't make assumptions; ask how he feels. He has a right to his feelings. How many times have we all said, "I wish he understood how I feel"?

Another place to seek agreement is in the importance of the person's relationship with you. You might say, for example, "Your work is very important to us. We want you to be satisfied. After all, you were one of our first clients." To avoid coming across as patronizing, consciously match the other person's energy in terms of the rate of speed when you speak and the tone and emphasis to be heard in your voice.

[Paragraph]Step 3. Resolve the conflict in a win-win way. Once the hostile person's feelings, relationship, or information has been validated, propose possible solutions. You may find that the situation is less disturbing than it seemed when the physician says, "I guess I was a little hasty in demanding the test result. I thought it had been three days since you did the culture." The illusion of being right can be strong, even magical.

[Paragraph]Step 4. Restore harmony with understanding. Say something like this: "Yes, doctor, if I could speed up the culture, you would have your result. It must be frustrating for you to wait." Put yourself in the other person's shoes. * Use physical movement. Motion is a useful strategy for discharging hostile energy. You might say, for example, "I'm upset about this, too. Let's discuss it in my office." Lead the way and the other person will follow. When the hostile person enters your office, he may collapse like an accordion. In a hospital setting, remove the hostile person from a public area to avoid upsetting patients and their families. * Try humor. While this approach is often a good way to defuse frustration or anger, it can backfire. Don't waste your wit on those who take themselves and their work too seriously to laugh. Humor works when a person can step back and see the lighter side of the situation. Avoid putdowns and sarcasm. * Look at yourself. Coping with hostile-aggressives can be a challenge and a chore. If you are strong, you probably will find it hard not to fight. But there is no reason to go out of your way to create an enemy. If possible, make the other person right - in his information, his feelings, and in his relationship with the lab.

Coping strategies can work equally well against agression by the hostile person "out there" or by the hostile person within. When you feel yourself becoming hostile, make the effort to take a step back, observe the situation, and draw on your sense of humor. Acknowledge your initial feelings about the situation and seek a win-win solution. Strive to make the other person right in one way or another.

Those who have the most trouble dealing with hostile-aggressives are their counterparts. If you find yourself acting hostile, consider such confrontations an important personal challenge. Remember, hostility and aggression induce the same behavior in others. Learning to cope with others is a fine way to learn to cope with yourself.

General references for this series:

Bramson, R.M. "Coping with Difficult People." New York, Random House, 1981. Crum, T. "The Magic of Conflict." New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987. Dobson, T. "Giving in to Get Your Way." New York, Delacorte Press, 1978. Horney, K. "Neurosis and Human Growth." New York, Norton, 1978.

The author is president of Communications Management Group, Houston, which provides health care training and development programs, and adjunct professor at the University of Houston. He is in the human resource development department at the Methodist Hospital, Houston, and has taught communication and group dynamics in the medical technology program at the University of Colorado, Denver.
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Title Annotation:Coping With Difficult People, part 3
Author:Nations, Kenneth H., III
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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