How to Deal with Obnoxious People

What do you do when a person is annoying, deliberately offensive and making people uncomfortable—someone who continually pulls pranks, disrupts meetings, or makes racist, sexist or ageist remarks?

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Search for Fulfillment, counsels you to try to understand the source of your annoyance before you react. This crucial step helps you figure out whether you’re being realistic in taking offense. If you call the person out, you might create unnecessary social tension. With that in mind, Whitbourne offers guidelines for your follow-up behavior:

1. Ignore it.

An obnoxious individual may simply want attention. Is he just trying to get a rise out of others? If ignored, the behavior will diminish on its own. You have to be consistent in ignoring the behavior and perhaps make a pact with other people in your group to refrain from laughing or otherwise delivering attention.

2. Confront the offender.

But recognize that your corrective action might only anger him. Having a champion on your side will help, research shows. In cases of direct confrontation of a prejudiced person, someone of the offending party’s gender, age or race should be the one to intervene.

3. Preserve the person’s self-esteem.

Research shows that prejudiced people are much more likely to change if they can first be made to feel good about themselves. Ask self-affirming questions of a person whose behavior you’re trying to correct. Burnishing her self-esteem may help her feel less threatened. Similarly, if the offender won’t reform, praise her when the humor is more mature.

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. Try these tips to smooth out your next feud.

Mary Vinnedge

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