Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Review: Dealing with Difficult People

For those of us in technical roles, I think too often skill set becomes equated with technical skill set. The fact is non-technical or soft skill sets are beneficial to people in technical roles. Soft skills involve your ability to communicate with others via e-mail, the phone, and instant messaging but also via articles, books, conference presentations and blogs.

The importance of working well with others is amplified in Open Source projects like Eclipse. Eclipse projects tend to be developed by large, geographically dispersed teams. These teams are comprised of people with, among other things, very different backgrounds, cultures, expectations, and priorities. These differences are further highlighted by the fact that the people on the project come from many companies and organizations meaning management structure cannot be used to enforce project decisions.

With that in mind I'd like to take a look at a book I just finished reading by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner entitled "Dealing with Difficult People: 24 Lessons for Bringing Out the Best in Everyone".

Let's get the details that may prevent you from looking at this book out of the way. The book is very short, weighing in at just under 100 small pages, and can easily be read in a single sitting. (I'm not a quick reader.) And, the book's cheap going for ~$10 on Amazon. Now, on with my review.

As you've likely guessed from the title, the book focuses on dealing with difficult people. These people show up at work but also in all facets of life.

In order to deal with a problem you have to know what you're dealing with. In its coverage of difficult people the book starts with an quick overview of the ten most unwanted behaviours: the Tank, the Sniper, the Know-it-all, the Think-they-know-it-all, the Grenade, the Yes Person, the Maybe Person, the Nothing Person, the No Person, and the Whiner.

With the question of "what" out of the way the book then moves on to the question of "why". Why is this person being difficult? According to the book, the motivation of a difficult person revolves around four intents. Understanding these four intents is key as once you understand the reason someone is being difficult you can work to resolve the problem in order to remedy the difficult behaviour. This part of the book should make it clear that difficult behaviour is a manifestation of another problem and once that problem is understood you can work to make the difficult person a productive member of your team.

Empowered with an understanding of who you're dealing with and what motivates them, you are ready to attack the problem. The book then presents you with a deeper view of each type of behaviour and arms you with tactics to combat each type of difficult person.

While the book focuses on identifying difficult behaviours in others I found a secondary benefit was the ability to look inwards and discover ways in which I can and have been difficult. It's not always easy to solicit negative feedback from peers and I think this book is a good tool for looking at yourself to discover some of your own negative behaviours.

Technical people need soft skills along with technical skills. Soft skills are a key component to the success of Open Source projects like those hosted at Eclipse. "Dealing with Difficult People" is not an in depth tour of the human psyche. It is a quick read that will open your eyes to the way both others and you behave and build upon your soft skills enabling further success in your projects.


Simon Archer said...

Sounds like a great book, from which we can all learn a thing or two. I'm going to order it now!

Aaron Digulla said...

I've read the successor of this book (Dealing WITH People You Can't Stand) and I can wholeheartedly agree with you. When I read it the first time, it was a real eye-opener for me. For the first time, I've seen someone attack the whole area of "difficult people" with a positive angle. It's short, precise and helpful.

Especially when one realizes that once in a while, oneself can be just that "difficult person" for someone else. :-)

Time to buy the update, then.

Geoffrey Wiseman said...

Sounds interesting; concrete examples might help me understand its value.

Do you have any examples of how what you've read helped you work with other people or understand yourself?

Lawrence Mandel said...

Well, I really did just read the book last weekend so I haven't yet had a chance to apply the tactics it suggests.

However, in terms of understanding other people, I was easily able to identify difficult people I've dealt with in the past (who I hadn't really understood) while I was reading the descriptions in the book. With reference to Eclipse, there are two specific cases that stick out in my mind where a difficult person overtook a meeting and had a negative effect. One of these was a sniper and the other was a whiner. (I'm purposefully being vague as I don't want to embarrass anyone.) I can't say for certain but I think I'm now in a better, more knowledgeable position to deal with these types of behaviour in the future.

In terms of understanding myself, after reading the book I wouldn't say that I'm any one of the difficult people identified in the book but that at times I have shared characteristics with several of them. It's quite something to read a description of yourself and recognize certain instances when you have been difficult. While understanding yourself is a life long goal the more you recognize of your behavioural patterns the more you can control how you behave when presented with a difficult, frustrating, maddening, ... situation.

Dr. K said...

Thanks for the review, Lawrence, it was fun reading your take on my coauthored work. The book is like the Cliff Notes version to our international bestseller, Dealing With People You Can't Stand. We drilled down for the strongest learning points and summaries.

You might also enjoy my most recent work, where I've gone beyond the dealing stage of the relationship to the proactive influencing stage. It's the Insider's Guide To The Art Of Persuasion, and I blog on this topic regularly.

Based on what you've written, I'd be very interested in interviewing you for my next book (to be finished this year and published next by Hyperion Press.) If you're interested in sharing some of your personal communication stories with me, you can contact me through my website,

Best wishes,
Rick Kirschner

Maz said...

I have just read the book on holiday in Bali (yes, yes I know i was 'supposed to be relaxing!) - however for me it was worth every second of my down time. recommended the book to 4 people (all women) whilst there. In fact, I returned empty handed. One woman begged me to keep it. Now I live waaaay out of everywhere in Port Hedland in Western Australia - so shopping for another will have to be over the net! I am glad she got such a lot from the book though, it was really worth passing on the wisdoms. I have ID'd myself in the book and will try to make some changes. However t best outcome is now I will put a plan of action in for my staff as far as 2 x think they know it all. They are bringing the whole team down - this book has given me some great tools to use in order to counter their actions. I remember there was a list of other books at the back of this one. Will try to find the titles as I believe they will be more than welcome on this manager's shelf. Easy to read, quick and punchy - cognizant that, as Managers we do not have a lot of time. Two thumbs up from me!!

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