We all have someone in our life who drives us nuts! They are exhausting, frustrating, annoying to deal with, and often they command way too much attention. Perhaps you have even more than one (like me!).
As body language expert and founder of Science of People I have spent over ten years working to decode humans and their complex interactions. I don’t believe difficult people are bad people.
I believe they are being emotionally hijacked the majority of the time. Their fear puts them in constant survival mode. And their gremlins make it impossible for them to compassionately connect or rationally compromise.
The question is: How can we help difficult people overcome their fear and be more socially smart?
Sometimes difficult, nutty people drive me bat-poop crazy. When someone’s gremlins are too much for me to deal with, I use a simple technique that I call:
The N-U-T Job
When dealing with difficult people, name the emotion, understand the feeling and tame the fear.
The NUT Job both prevents crazy and calms crazy.
This powerful little hack is a simplified version of a hostage release technique taught by Dr. Mark Goulston—yes, dealing with a difficult person can be like negotiating with a kidnapper.
Let’s put on our big-boy pants.
Step #1: Name
Most gremlins are a product of not being recognized, accepted, or heard. You can quiet these fears by showing someone that you do recognize, accept, and hear exactly where they are coming from. This is done by the first stage of the NUT Job: naming.
In naming, you are trying to find the answer to: What is this person afraid of?
The moment you identify the emotion someone is feeling, you open a release valve for their anxiety. Sound easy? It is simple, but for some reason it feels counterintuitive to most of us.
Typically, when someone is emotional and we are not, we try to counterbalance them by staying calm. But this doesn’t work. In fact, it usually only infuriates an upset person even more.
Here’s a common example that happens between men and women:
This conversation quickly escalated. The man was trying to help, but the woman wasn’t looking for a solution— she wanted to be heard.
All the man had to do was listen for emotion words: words that indicate inner fears. Then he should have worked those exact same emotion words into conversation to validate the woman’s concerns and prompt her to say more. That script would go like this:
In this version, notice that the man is simply reflecting the emotion words back at the speaker, trying to get to the root of her fear. This helps him comprehend what’s going on and allows her to sort out her emotions.
Once she feels heard and validated, then she moves into stage two of the NUT Job: understanding.
My favorite phrases for naming:
- You seem ____.
- Are you feeling ____?
- Give me a sense for what you’re feeling.
Special Note: Decoding microexpressions is also incredibly helpful for naming—especially when someone isn’t being as vocal about their emotions as you’d like. Naming an emotion you read on their face is just as effective.
Step #2: Understand
Once someone feels heard, their Low Road fear begins to disengage and the High Road starts to kick in. Already, you’re dealing with a more logical, rational, and relationship-oriented person.
The goal of the understanding phase is to unpack emotions behind what’s being said. During this time, you are trying to:
- Get as much information as possible
- Help them process as much as possible
- Identify their primary value in the situation
You want to find the answer to: What is this person seeking?
Let’s revisit the above example in step one. The points where we get hints of the woman’s primary value are underlined. You can use the personality cheat sheet in our Digital Bonuses as a quick reference guide if you need a refresher. See if you can guess what her primary value is:
Based on her answers, it sounds like her primary value is Information or Status. Say the man asks more questions and narrows it down to Information. This is key information! Wanting a promotion right away is one thing. But merely wanting to know if you’re deserving of a promotion, and whether there is a timeline in place, is a very different goal. Here’s where the next step of the NUT Job comes in: Transform.
My favorite phrases for understanding:
- Tell me what happened that made you feel this way.
- The reason you’re so ___ is because?
- What caused this _____?
Step #3: Transform
Once someone is fully in High Road— their fears are disengaged and they’ve worked through the problem out loud— you can begin to transform the problem into a solution.
Note: Do NOT try to move onto the Transform step until you are fully done naming and understanding. If someone is still speaking in a loud voice, tearful or flushed with emotion— they are not done processing yet.
Once someone gives a big sigh of relief, begins to talk at a normal level, and sounds more like themselves, then you can move on. In the Transform stage, you have two options: speed-read or use their appreciation language. If you can offer answers or facilitate a resolution—awesome!
Sometimes, as with many problems, they cannot fully be “fixed.” In that case, you are best going into appreciation language mode. You can at least value the person and make them feel less alone.
During this stage, you’re answering the question: What does this person need?
Returning to our previous example, here’s how to execute this step:
In this situation, the man not only calms down the woman in a difficult situation and difficult mood, but also becomes her support. When you Name, Understand, and Transform someone out of their difficulty, you become their ally.
My favorite phrases for transforming:
- How can I help?
- What needs to happen for you to feel better?
- What role can I play in making this better? What role can you play?
The NUT Job system is not about trying to change people— which usually only makes them double down on their bad behavior— but about valuing them and providing deeper understanding into a problem. You can’t argue with a feeling, but you can acknowledge it.
When you value difficult people, they will be less apathetic, angry, and fearful, and more compassionate, understanding, and open. However, you will meet difficult people that don’t respond well to even the most empathetic tactics.
Their fear is so ingrained that they become impossible to deal with. I call these people toxic— and not in the poppy Britney Spears spirit, but in the radioactive, poisonous kind of way.