Working with Difficult People: Turn Tormentors Into Teachers

 In Negative emotions, Relationships

This week I’m excited to bring you a guest blog from Judy Ringer, a conflict expert, author, speaker, and trainer. I love how Judy uses the martial art of Aikido as a valuable metaphor and method for managing conflict in business and leadership settings. This is an excerpt from her article, Working with Difficult People: Turn Tormentors Into Teachers

Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “wrang-wrangs” to describe great teachers who are placed in our life disguised as difficult, confrontational, disrespectful, and sometimes horrible people. “Wrang-wrangs” are placed there on purpose and can teach us important lessons, if we’re willing to listen and learn.

It’s hard to like everyone. Some colleagues are great partners; we know their style and blend easily with them. We “dance well together.” With others, we always seem to be out of step. We wonder, How can they be that way? or What makes them tick? Or worse – we don’t care; we just want to be as far away as possible.

The problem is we still have to work with these people, and our reactivity in their presence gives them a kind of power over us. However, by seeking to understand the opponent, we take the initiative. At worst, we learn something. At best, we may turn them into an ally and improve the quality of the work environment.

But how do you turn a tormentor into a teacher? Begin by asking yourself some questions about who they are and why they behave the way they do.

  •  Who is this person away from the workplace? See the different parts of this person – the parent, grandparent, friend, dancer, skier, singer, or loved one (of someone!). Chances are you’re only seeing the annoying part of your tormentor. Widen your perspective.
  • What is their positive intention? Underneath the disrespectful behavior, what do they really want? Respect? Independence? Control? Acknowledgement? Attention? You may realize that you have similar goals, though you seek them differently.
  • Why do you think they behave as they do? It’s useful to adopt the attitude that their actions have little (if anything) to do with you. Most people operate out of habit. Even if they don’t get the respect or attention they desire, they can’t change because they don’t know any other way. Maybe it falls to you to help them find it. Suggest ways they might achieve their aims more effectively. Be their teacher.

As you read this article, think of someone with whom your “dance” feels like a struggle. Then, instead of wishing they would change, start with yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong, at fault, or will change your opinion. It means that in order to resolve the conflict it works better to begin with what you can control – you. Remember that you’re doing this for you. You’re stuck and you want to get unstuck.


Judy Ringer is a conflict and communication skills trainer, black belt in Aikido, and founder of Power & Presence Training and Portsmouth Aikido. Check out her books, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict and her soon to be released, Turn Enemies into Allies:  The Art of Peace in the Workplace.

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