There are many kinds of difficult people: Complainers, Snipers, The Silent Dominator, Liars, Pleasers, and many more. However, let’s focus on one specific family of difficult people, those that are very aggressive. This group goes by many names: Tanks, Bullies, Dominators, the Right and Righteous. Whatever they are called, at some point in your career you will encounter these fine folks and they are more than a handful for us “normal Joes” to contend with.

Unfortunately, none of your technical training will be relevant, nor will any of your mainstream communications training be useful. In fact, very little of what you have been taught will come in handy at all. Difficult people will limit your career and your life, and you have not been equipped to deal with them.
Difficult people will limit your career and your life, and you have not been equipped to deal with them. Click To Tweet

Whether you’ve been through a personality tool and you know you are a “blue” and they are a “gold,” or whether you have been told to “paraphrase” people or whether you’ve been taught to use “I” statements, you will be ill-equipped. This type of person will squash you and your “active listening” techniques and all your mainstream interpersonal leadership and team training like a bug. They will stretch you to the limits of your emotional, psychological, and intellectual capacity…and break you.

This “break” will come in the sense that you will stop being yourself around this type of person. In fact, you will spend more and more time not being you, until ‘not being’ you IS YOU! And you will predictably become resigned (by pretending it doesn’t matter), avoiding, defensive, despondent, or forceful when dealing with them.

Adding to the impact these people have, you will spend incredible amounts of time in your own head thinking about these people, plotting against them, and playing out fantasies about taking them on. Some of you will spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about them.

Here’s the good news: No one is designed to deal with this kind of person. These are not “ordinary” people. They are tantrum-throwing five-year olds on steroids.

When you engage them, everything you know to be true about yourself vanishes and you are left fighting against your own physiology to keep it together and act effectively. You will be “triggered,” meaning your capacity to reason (your neo-cortex) will be hijacked by the emotional centres of your brain (the limbic system including the amygdala). In other words, you are physically designed to do one of three things:

• cave in to their wishes
• hurl all you’ve got at them
• lie down and play dead

…none of which works.

So what’s the alternative?

First, you’ve got to understand that if you were witnessing another person dealing with a difficult person, you would not have the same physiological response as if it were actually you. This would also be the case if someone were recounting to you their interaction with a difficult person—you may be entertained, engaged, or horrified by what they said, but not triggered by what they said, even though they are reliving the incident as they recount it to you. So what’s the difference when you are the person who is actually in the middle of this kind of conflict?

There is no REAL difference, except that YOU decide there is—you decide to take it PERSONALLY when it’s you.

So what does that mean? The trick to dealing with a hyper-aggressive person—a Tank—is twofold. You cannot appear weak or deferring or they will eat you alive, and you cannot appear aggressive or insulting or they will wage war on you. Fortunately, there is a sweet spot in communication that can pierce their armor while leaving their ego intact.

Here are five things to implement that will make a difference:

1. It’s NOT Personal
2. Your Tone Must be Bold
3. Your Words Must Remain Reasonable
4. You Must “Get” and Reframe What They Say
5. You Need to Ask Open Questions

If you can sideline your ego long enough to deal with these explosive interactions and use these five tips, you will go where no man has gone before with these difficult people—and, in my experience, even become their special friend in many cases. If you do pull this off and become their friend, here’s what you might expect from the Tank: “You know Vik, I like you. You don’t take crap from those other morons. Let’s grab a beer.”

If you hit this point, well…you might have a whole new set of problems that I have no answers for, and I’ll understand if you don’t thank me.