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Human services?...That must be so rewarding.

Human services?...That must be so rewarding.

A Practical Guide for Professional Development, Second Edition
Author: Gail S. Bernstein Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-55766-332-0
Pages: 240
Copyright: 1999
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The second edition of this ultra-practical resource helps both students and professionals in the human services fields be more focused and fulfilled in the work they do. By working through self-analysis exercises on issues such as work-related values and conflicts, personal goals and limits, respect for consumers, collaboration among colleagues, and stress management, readers can learn to avoid burnout and approach their work more realistically and optimistically.

The author offers practical examples and essential survival tips to help professionals keep up with changes in the human services field. The book is illuminated by candid, insightful comments from a variety of experienced professionals, including those who work with people with disabilities, children who have been abused, people with substance addictions, people with chronic mental illnesses, and people at risk for HIV/AIDS.

An essential preservice and in-service training text, as well as an excellent self-help resource for professionals in direct services, social work, counseling, physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, special education, rehabilitation, elder care, and any other human services profession.

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Review by: Marlene Maheu
"Well-organized. . . . Provides clear direction for techniques people can use to help themselves, and is systematic and thorough in its approach to the issues involved. I would recommend this book highly and without reservation."
About the Author
And Introducing...

Section I: HUMAN Services Professional

  1. On Knowing Yourself,
    or What's a Nice Person Like You Doing in a Job Like This?
  2. On Minding Other People's Business,
    or Who Appointed You?

Section II: Human SERVICES Professional
  1. Human Problems, Human Services Values,
    or How Shall We Help?
Section III: Human Services PROFESSIONAL
  1. Professional Relationships,
    or People Who Need People
  2. Time Management,
    or A Time for Every Purpose under the Heaven
  3. Communication,
    or Did You Say What I Heard?
  4. Professional Development,
    or Find Your Job, and Love It
Section IV: Again, HUMAN
  1. Stress Management,
    or Mama Never Told Me There'd Be Days Like This
  2. The Proactive Human Services Professional,
    or Putting It All Together

Useful Resources

Excerpted from chapter 6 of "Human services? . . . That must be so rewarding." A Practical Guide for Professional Development, Second Edition, by Gail S. Bernstein, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

Working with Difficult People

The last part of this chapter concerns the process of interacting with people whose actions you find frustrating. Examples of difficult behavior include the following: the colleague who smiles and nods when you ask her to do something and then does not do it, the supervisor who yells at you when you say that he has not been clear, or your counterpart at another agency who does not return your calls. These are people with whom it is difficult to work. Their behavior may trigger strong emotional reactions in you, reactions that make it hard to behave calmly and proactively. There are three ways you can respond to people who act in problematic ways: 1) You can try to change their behavior, which is likely to be a slow process with no guarantee of success; 2) you can give in; or 3) you can cope. Coping involves contending with people on equal terms and is a way to establish a balance of power in a relationship (Bramson, 1981). People you find difficult to work with may have power over you; coping is a way to establish a balance of power in the relationship so that you can both get on with business (Bramson, 1981).

Suppose you work with someone you find difficult. You are constantly exasperated and frustrated by interactions with this person and, as a result, are unable to complete an important part of your job. You find yourself reacting to this person, rather than planning how to handle difficult situations in advance. Simply reacting will not help you in the long run because it places the difficult person in control. The following steps are designed to help you to proactively cope with the problem.

1. Is this a consistent problem? Ask yourself whether the person acts this way all the time or just in the current situation. If the problem is not one you typically have with this person, you may want to sit down with her and ask what is happening. If the problem is a continual one, move on to Step 2.

2. Get some distance from the situation. Choose a time and a place that remove you enough so that you can consider the problem calmly. For instance, if your problem is with the person in the office next to yours, then you may want to leave your office and find a quiet place farther away.

3. Describe in detail, preferably in writing, the behavior of the person you find difficult. For example, the following is Tyrone's description of a colleague who is a complainer. Every time Tyrone says more than "hello" to him, the colleague has something to complain about. Some of the things the colleague has said recently are as follows:

  • "Have you heard the latest? There's another form to fill out before we can help people."
  • "This coffee is terrible. Someone must be dumping motor oil in it."
  • "That client is just going to take our money and gamble it away, and there isn't a thing we can do about it."
  • "The boss is at it again. Now she wants us to have a goal-planning session. What a waste of time!"

4. Ask yourself how important it is that this situation change. We all have to make decisions daily about where to invest our time and energy. Consider whether this particular situation is worth investing your time and energy in trying to change it. If yes, continue.

5. Describe what you did and how you felt when faced with the behavior you listed. Describe your own actions in as much detail as possible. Here are some of Tyrone's sample responses to the complaints listed previously:

  • "I don't think the new form is so bad."
  • "Yes, the coffee does taste pretty bad."
  • "Well, we don't have any rules about how our clients spend the money."
  • "The session is a nice break in the routine."
  • Tyrone also noted he felt frustrated and angry at having to listen to all those complaints.

6. Review the interactions and emotional reactions you described, and answer these questions:

  • What did you want to accomplish during those interactions? Tyrone wants to avoid unpleasantness, to stop further complaints, and to feel less frustrated and angry.
  • What did you do that seemed to work? That is, what did you do to make progress toward accomplishing your goals? Tyrone did avoid further unpleasantness in each individual interaction, but he was not successful at ending the other person's complaining, and he still felt frustrated and angry.
  • What did you do that did not seem to work?

7. Given your answers to Step 6, describe what you need to do to cope more effectively. Answer these questions:

  • What skills do I need to use that I already have? Tyrone is able to stay calm and pleasant in response to the complaints, and he is able to identify the positive aspects of unpleasant situations.

  • What skills do I need to learn in order to cope with this problem? Tyrone clearly needs to learn skills that will stop the complaining permanently. According to Bramson (1981), these skills are as follows: listening attentively to the complaint; checking your perception of how the person feels by paraphrasing; and not agreeing or apologizing, even when the complaint is legitimate. In addition, state the facts and acknowledge them, but do not comment; try to move to a problem-solving mode; and if all else fails, ask how the complainer wants the conversation to end because you have another commitment in a few minutes.

    When people behave in ways that do not make sense to you, they are probably getting something out of their behavior (Scott, 1990) and/or do not know how to behave differently. For instance, some complaints are efforts to avoid new tasks. Developing skills in analyzing what people get from engaging in difficult behavior will help you come up with effective coping strategies.

    Another useful skill for coping with difficult people is the ability to work through your emotional reactions to their behavior (Scott, 1990). For instance, if you find yourself thinking that this person is deliberately trying to get your goat, check whether the behavior occurs in interactions with others. If it does, then remind yourself that you are not being singled out. Also, identifying when your emotional reaction to difficult behavior is related to your personal history is very important to developing better coping skills. Suppose you recognize that you feel anxious when people raise their voices because as a child your parents yelled at you when they were drinking. That gives you the information you need to acknowledge that some of your feelings may be about the past rather than about the present situation. Because dealing with difficult people usually involves strong emotions, stress management skills are also crucial (see Chapter 8).

    When coping with difficult people, it is important not to get stuck in thinking that everything would be fixed if only these people would do what they "should" do. It is true that if everyone behaved well, then the world would be a better place. Knowing that, however, does not solve the problem, and you are the only person whose behavior you can change directly, so your coping strategy has to be based on what you can do and say, not what you think other people should do.

8. Using your answers to Step 7, write an action plan that specifies what you will do and when you will do it.

9. Set a time to review your progress toward an effective coping strategy. When you conduct your review, decide whether your plan is working. If not, revise it.

(From Bramson, R.M. (1981). Coping with difficult people. Copyright © 1981 by Robert M. Bramson. Adapted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.)

Coping Strategy in Action

Ethel is a "sniper." Whenever Amanda makes a suggestion at a meeting, Ethel has a comment such as "There goes our college graduate again, being high and mighty and trying to improve us." These comments are always made with a smile and a pleasant tone of voice, so they are not openly hostile. Ethel is also a master at making snide remarks about the boss whenever he is not present. A recent example is "Well, he certainly was pleasant today in the staff meeting — I wonder what extra work he's dreaming up for us." When Amanda presented a new approach to delivering one type of service, Ethel said, "There goes Amanda, playing up to the boss again."

Amanda developed a coping plan for working with Ethel. Here are her responses to the nine questions listed in the previous section:

  1. Is this a consistent problem? Yes, it is. Ethel snipes all the time.

  2. Get some distance from the situation. Amanda finds an empty conference room and puts a "Meeting in Progress — Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

  3. Describe the behavior. Amanda generates the descriptions of Ethel's behavior given above.

  4. How important is it that this situation change? Very. I have to deal with Ethel every day.

  5. Describe your reactions. When Ethel said, "There goes our college graduate again," I turned red, muttered something about "just trying to contribute to the team," and shut up. When Ethel made the crack about playing up to the boss, I became angry but did not say anything and soon after left for the women's restroom to regain control of my temper.

  6. What did you want to accomplish? I wanted to control my temper and shut her up. I did manage to control my temper, except for turning red, but she never shuts up. Failure to respond emotionally seems to help me gain control, but it doesn't prevent future attacks.

  7. Describe what you need to do. Clearly I need to continue to control my emotions while learning a way to prevent ongoing attacks. I think I need to be more direct with Ethel. I also need to consider what she might be getting out of her behavior. She gets to see my emotional reaction — I wonder if she says those nasty things to get attention.

  8. Write an action plan. Here is my plan. The next time she snipes at me in a staff meeting, I'm going to address her directly by saying something like, "Ethel, that sounds like you're making fun of me. Is that what you mean to do?" She will probably deny that she is making fun, but that's okay. The other thing she might do is tell me that what I'm suggesting is all wrong and why. If she does that, I'll try to find out what everyone else thinks, for example by asking, "Does anyone else agree with that point of view?" If others agree there is a problem with my idea, then I'll suggest we try to solve it. It's okay for her to criticize my ideas as long as the criticism is open and can be discussed. It's not okay for her to snipe at me. I suppose one other way she could react is to agree that she is making fun of me. If she does, I'll tell her that, like most people, I don't like being made fun of, and I'll ask whether she's willing to stop. If she admits publicly to making fun of me, then I think it's okay to put her on the spot.

    My biggest problem with this plan will be staying calm, because I see red when Ethel snipes. I'll try to take a slow, deep breath before I make any response to her sniping.

    I guess my plan won't work if she snipes because it's the only way she has to get attention. She does have good ideas sometimes. Maybe I'll also try to approach her and ask her advice at times when she's not sniping. It's not that I want to avoid her altogether; I just don't want to be treated badly.

  9. Set a time to review your progress toward an effective coping strategy. I'll review the situation in 3 weeks and decide whether I've made any progress.

This coping strategy often helps, but it does not lead to success every time you use it. Sometimes your best efforts to cope fail. Then, it is time to remember that you always have a choice about whether you continue to stay in contact with a person whose behavior is consistently difficult (Bramson, 1981). This is not an easy choice, particularly when your difficult person is your supervisor and your only choice is to find another job. Choosing to withdraw from contact, however, is always your final option.

Cherish an awareness that coping with Difficult People is never easy and hardly ever fun. If you know what you're doing, you ought to feel uneasy. Acknowledgment of fear is the first step toward moving beyond it. (Bramson, 1981, p. 175)


6-7. Pick one difficult person you must interact with regularly at work or at school. Use the nine steps above to develop a plan for coping with that person.

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