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What Do Difficult People Want? What Are They Trying To Achieve?

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What Are Difficult People After?

We’ve explained part of the “why” of difficult behavior, but there’s still more to the picture. Apart from having learned that difficult behavior is rewarding or lacking the skills to handle a situation better or even being upset, what is it that those darn people want?

Another way of putting it is: If people are difficult because they tend to be rewarded for it, what are the rewards?
On the surface of it, the whole thing is very puzzling. People who act difficult don’t appear to get what they want. They create grief, not only for others but for themselves, as their audience gets tired of their acts or reacts negatively to them. Aside from the old saying that squeaky wheels often get greased, are there some forms of psychological reward that are attached to difficult behavior?

Yes, there are, and you need to understand them so you can make sure that these rewards don’t encourage more difficult behavior.

We’re going to look at the most common rewards in a psychological sense. Again, we need to caution you that many of us, at one time or another, allow these rewards to drive our behavior.

Sense of Control

Perhaps many, if not all, individuals have a need to feel in control of their lives and what’s going on around them. Very few people feel comfortable with the idea that their lives and welfare—present and future—are totally beyond their own control. For many, the feeling of helplessness associated with not being able to control things is scary. That’s pretty normal. Most people aren’t control freaks, but they do want some feeling of control over what happens to them.

How does this link up with being rewarded for bad behavior? Simple. Many of the behaviors exhibited by difficult people have, at their core, the outcome of controlling the situation or other people’s reactions. A person being difficult and creating problems is, in a sense, controlling those around him or her. People react to a difficult person.

That allows a difficult person to manipulate, control, and influence, even if the reactions are negative. In a sense, the difficult person is creating those reactions, and therein lies the reinforcement. It’s kind of like parents and children. After children know what the parents don’t want them to do, they have the exact information they need to get the parents’ attention

It’s a psychological reward. Even if bad things happen to people who are difficult,
they have created the situation, and that gives them a sense of control.

Straw That Stirs the Drink

If you are an old baseball fan, you might recall that Reggie Jackson, who played for
the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees, described himself as the “straw that stirs the drink.” What Reggie meant by this was that, among the 25 players on the team, it was he who was at the center—the player who made things happen. (As an aside, he may have been right.)
It’s about ego, really. Some people need to feel they are the central attraction, the star performer, the wonderboy, and that can create problems for others. This particular motivation, of course, causes problems in and of itself, because the attitude is really annoying. But more than that, it explains what some difficult people are after with their difficult behavior.

For example, let’s consider Marie. She’s bright and a good performer but is seen as difficult and hard to deal with by those around her. Why? Because she acts as if she’s perfect. She knows it all, doesn’t listen to others, interrupts, and doesn’t take management guidance (she actually ignores it). What does she get out of those behaviors? First, she gets away with it. People often defer to her because she is often (but not always) right. Or they defer because it’s easier than trying to have an intelligent dialogue with her.

Second, she’s acting like she’s the star performer. She’s reinforcing that she is special or better than others; she’s the straw that stirs the drink every time she behaves this way. She is a legend in her own mind and becomes the star everytime she acts like the star.

I’m Not Much So I Have a Lot to Prove

While the person who wants to be the straw that stirs the drink really does think he or she is special and worthy of star status, the “I’m not much so I have a lot to prove” person comes from a different place. The difficult behavior comes from a need to prove something, not only to others but also to themselves.

Oftentimes, difficult interpersonal behavior comes from people who have this strong, almost compulsive need to show themselves and others that they are worth something. So it isn’t that they are evil or intentionally unpleasant, but rather that they are often desperate.

A Reaction … I Need A Reaction

This motivation is actually linked to the other ones we have talked about so far. Believe it or not, some people seem driven by a desire to cause reactions in other people. It’s almost as if they don’t believe they are alive and breathing unless they can stir up the people around them. What’s odd about such people is they don’t seem to care whether they generate a positive reaction, like praise, or a negative reaction, like being yelled at. They seem to gain some psychological satisfaction from either.

Is it wanting to control others? Could be. A desire to be the center of attention? Sure.

However, what is important with people who are driven to create reactions is to not give them what they want, which is some emotional reaction. That means keeping their behavior in perspective so you don’t reward bad behavior.

Weird Biology, Weird Science

Some difficult people actually act out in difficult ways because of their biology. As scientists develop a better understanding of the brain, we will probably find out that at least some difficult behavior can be explained by biological factors. We mention this here to help you understand that difficult behavior may not be under the complete conscious control of the person doing it. And so, you might add a dash of compassion to your negative reactions. The truth is that some people (and we don’t know how many) can’t help it.

Briefly, here are a few biological sources of difficult or erratic behavior. The first is attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD). Most people associate this with an older term, hyperactivity, which was used almost exclusively to describe children with poor attention spans who are very difficult to control.

While this is a controversial area, there seems to be some indication that ADD is not restricted to children, but also to adults. Their biology seems to result in poor attention span, impatience, boredom, and a tendency to create crises around them. The bottom line with ADD kids or adults is they can be very difficult, but are often of above-average intelligence. Some other biological conditions that may cause difficult behavior include blood-sugar problems, brain tumors and other related brain maladies, and, of course, the influence of medications, recreational drugs, and alcohol. It’s good to keep in mind that medications, in particular, can affect how people behave.

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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