(There aren't) Monsters in the Writing Center: Dealing with Difficult People

With Halloween upon us, I think it's appropriate to think about the spookier side of life at the writing center. Sometimes the coffee runs out (which is terrifying); sometimes the appointments website goes down (which is downright cringe-worthy); and sometimes people just seem to behave like monsters. And THAT can be quite frightening.

Jeffrey Stellmach, the senior social worker at the UT Employee Assistance Program, gave a fantastic presentation to our staff about how to deal with “difficult people.” For writing center employees, difficult people can include aggressive students, passive-aggressive coworkers, and/or manipulative consultees. First, he asked us to describe what might make a person difficult, and the list of adjectives we came up with ranged from stubborn, combative, offensive, demanding, entitled, dismissive and passive-aggressive. He encouraged us to stay away from labels after this initial exercise, though, in order to focus on difficult behaviors. According to Mr. Stellmach, labels can shut down conversations and keep cooperation and conciliation from happening. When we approach difficult people with the understanding that the situation is hard for them, too, we are able to display empathy and approach solutions instead of judgment. Nobody wants to be treated like a monster.

The general principles Mr. Stellmach shared for dealing with people exhibiting difficult behaviors are:

1) Provide the person an opportunity to express concerns

2) Validate the importance of his/her concerns

3) Reflect back to the person that you have heard what they are saying

4) Set clear expectations and limits for how you will discuss the issue

5) Initiate problem-solving

Mr. Stellmach emphasized the importance not only of listening but of ensuring that the other person feels heard. Using “I statements,” as in “I hear that this is important to you” or “I think the best way I can help you is…” can help avoid making the person feel accused or attacked. These “I statements” should not be used to prevaricate but to confidently assert. A good strategy is using a reflective statement to parrot back the person’s stance. This allows you to assert yourself and your opinion while making the person feel as though you're responding to her specific concerns.

He also talked to us about managing fight or flight physiological stress reactions. In an emotional confrontation, he suggested that that adrenaline responses be modulated by taking a deep breath, speaking slowly and calmly, and being reassuring and authoritative. You should not make sudden movements or physical contact, response defensively, or minimizing the person’s concerns.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Stellmach at the Employee Assistance Program for his presentation. In the spirit of the holiday, our writing center staff is now better equipped to handle monstrous behavior while avoiding being monstrously judgmental!