Five steps to dealing with unpleasant behaviour

Five steps to dealing with unpleasant behaviour

by Jacquie Wise

Whether we’re dealing with kids, who haven’t yet matured, or kidults, who are taking their jolly time maturing, (that’s most of us, by the way…) the steps to correcting unpleasant behaviour are the same.

Step 1: Observe

Notice when the behaviour occurs. There may be a pattern that can reveal the trigger. Once you’ve got the trigger, it can be easier to find the best solution.

What is it that sets the person off? Do they lose their temper at certain times of the day? That might indicate a sleeping problem, if it’s in the morning. If towards the end of the day, maybe it’s frustration that the day hasn’t gone as expected—that not enough has been accomplished. Maybe their expectations are unrealistic, or they feel inadequate in some way.

Can you detect that perhaps their brand of behaviour occurs only when they’re stressed or anxious about something that has nothing to do with you—or perhaps it is, indeed, something that you’re doing that triggers this response? How might you be contributing to the situation?

Step 2: Identify the underlying need

Some people become unpleasant or aggressive because they need recognition or reassurance. Any parent knows how children start misbehaving when they want attention or are feeling insecure. It’s no different with us kidults.

Our insecurities and subconscious needs can be very strong, and if we find it difficult to express them openly and rationally, they build up to a point that we may be driven to express them in an unpleasant and irrational way. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of how we’re coming across. Even if we are, we often find it impossible to control the subconscious urges that drive the behaviour.

Tim and Tania (names changed) came to see me as a couple because Tania had a habit of getting herself into a negative spin which ended up in her doubting herself, doubting Tim, doubting everything to the point of acute anxiety.

Tania’s negativity was completely out of control. Like so many of us, she was not aware that she was thinking negatively until she’d dug herself into a deep pit. Then her anxiety took over, which resulted in more negative thinking.

She needed constant reassurance, but no matter how much Tim did reassure her, it was never enough.

Tania finally realized that she was repeating behaviour from her childhood. As a child, she didn’t get the attention of her parents unless she created a drama. She had always felt vulnerable because of their lack of response to her, so her need for reassurance increased proportionately. She needed rescuing. This had become a subconscious habit, even though she received plenty of attention and support from Tim.

Once Tania understood her subconscious drives, she was well on her way to healing the pattern that was affecting her relationship as well as her profession.

Step 3: Respond to the identified need

Don’t respond to the behaviour—respond to what you identify as the underlying cause. If you haven’t identified it, ask. Encourage the person to confide in you. Make them feel safe to talk about their issue with you, knowing you won’t ridicule or dismiss them, and that you can be trusted.

Many of us have no idea what our triggers are. ‘I don’t know’ is the most common answer I get when I’m counselling people. Ok, so they don’t know. So encourage them to make an educated guess. Could it be this, might it be that, what about … just brainstorm possibilities. One of them will resonate more than the others. Bingo. We have enlightenment. It’s a starting point, at least.

It’s not always necessary or even recommended to acknowledge the need openly. How diplomatic would it be to say to someone: ‘I know you’re being aggressive because you’re jealous that Bertha got more credit than you for that project…’ (I don’t think so!)

Allow them to save face, but find a way to give them the recognition they need.

If you’re the one who’s unwittingly instigating the unpleasant reaction, then it’s time for some objective self-assessment. Whilst it’s true that we are each responsible for our own emotions and behaviour, and we can choose to respond maturely or immaturely, it doesn’t help to step on someone’s corns repeatedly. You’re not the kind of person who says ‘Their behaviour is their problem; nothing to do with me.’ Are you?

The same process applies if you’re trying to find your own triggers by yourself. Keep coming up with every possible cause you can think of—it’s going to be one of them! It helps if you’ve read a few self-development books to understand how we typically react to life’s challenges.

Of course, in a professional environment, there is a place for saying: ‘This behaviour will not be tolerated here’ within the context of a performance appraisal review or disciplinary interview. The message being shape up or ship out. But we all know the laws; you can’t do that without giving the person training, and the opportunity to improve.

Step 4: Negotiate a change

Begin by explaining the impact the behaviour has on you. Moody people often don’t realize how much the gloomy atmosphere they create can affect others.

Use the standard assertiveness statement:

‘When you…I feel… because…therefore I need you to…’

For Tania, the support Tim was giving her was never enough. She needed to acknowledge his efforts, as well as give him space to get on with his own priorities. During our discussions together, it came as a shock to Tania that Tim didn’t feel their relationship was that of an equal team. It had never occurred to her that Tim also needed support, now and then. She hadn’t realized how much her behaviour had been draining him, even though he loved her deeply.

Together, Tim, Tania and I developed a variety of strategies to help them. I taught her how to become aware of her thinking patterns and stop herself before she got dragged down the spiral.

If ever they found themselves dragged into an exhausting cycle, one of them would say ‘Freeze-frame’ and they would stop everything: stop talking, stop moving, just about stop breathing for long enough to stop that negative energy in its tracks.

Tania also needed to fill her mind with positives, so we focused on her approach to her goals and taught her how to build in a guarantee of success, so that she was encouraged by her own achievements. This tied in with the work we were doing on her self-esteem and her ability to be self-sufficient.

Step 5: Acknowledge, appreciate and validate

Changing old habits takes time and you need to acknowledge the effort they’ve made, appreciate the improvement, and validate that they’re on the right track and things are getting better.

It’s far more effective to reinforce good behaviour than to criticise failed attempts.

If you’re , follow the same steps, and don’t forget to acknowledge and validate your own efforts. Even if you haven’t quite made it, this time, you’ll be more likely to keep trying if you encourage yourself.

Tim and Tania agreed to close each day by documenting together all the positive steps they’d taken that day. By acknowledging every tiny achievement, Tania began to learn how to acknowledge herself, becoming less dependent on validation from others.

Any pattern can be changed. Some are harder than others, but if we find out how, and are committed to taking the required action, it is even possible to shift a personality.

Would you like to learn more techniques for understanding other people’s behaviour and how to deal with it? If so, contact me directly to arrange a convenient appointment time.

I’d love to know what you think of what I’ve said here. You can give me your feedback, ask a question by email or post a comment below.

If you or someone you know would like a personal consultation, please call +61 3 9690 8159.

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