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Blog Short #165: How to Deal With a Troublemaker

Photo by Khosrork, Courtesy of iStock Photo

When you read that title, did someone come to mind? My guess is yes because there’s no shortage of troublemakers. Why is that? And how do you handle them?

That’s today’s subject.

Let’s start by describing the tools troublemakers use and why they do it. Knowing the tools helps you decide what your approach should be.

The Troublemaker’s Toolbox

Divide and Conquer

“Divide and conquer” is the most insidious of the tools because it happens under the radar before you recognize it’s happening. It occurs when someone pits people against each other to create discord.

Let’s use an office situation as an example.

The troublemaker spreads gossip and untruths from one person to the next until everyone’s upset, disgruntled, and pointing fingers at each other for things they think have been said about them. You go to a staff meeting, and the tension is palpable, but it’s all based on rumors or exaggerations of conversations taken out of context.

Troublemakers love a juicy piece of gossip they can spread, inflate, and use to manipulate or cause chaos.

The motive for dividing and conquering is usually to manipulate to get something. The troublemaker might be jealous of someone or something, want more attention, or use it to compete. An example might be seeking a promotion by making your competition look bad so you look better.

The Strategies:

1. Check information before reacting.

When something seems amiss, or you have an inkling that what you’re observing or hearing doesn’t add up, seek more information to get the whole picture. Check out the validity of what the troublemaker tells you. Dividing and conquering only works when information is hidden, exaggerated, and faulty.

2. Consider the motive.

Ask yourself what this person might have to gain by their behavior. What’s their motive? Who does it hurt?

3. Refuse to play.

If you suspect the motives are not good, refuse to play. Direct their complaints back to the people they’re complaining about, and don’t join in by listening. Move secrets out into the open. Divide and conquer can only work if everyone participates.

Spread Negativity

Another method of causing trouble is chronically complaining and spreading negativity within a group. In this case, the troublemaker is not necessarily pitting people against each other but coming up with reasons why nothing will work or is going well.

Someone has a good idea, and the troublemaker shuts it down. Then, another idea is offered, and the same occurs. And on it goes. Sooner or later, everyone’s irritable and feeling defeated.

Usually, this kind of troublemaking is more visible, so it’s easier to stop.

In families, however, it can create a lot of bickering and hurt feelings as the negativity spreads to everyone and becomes a feedback loop that intensifies the gloom. It’s a case of “yes but” and “misery loves company.”

The Strategies:

1. Call them out.

Make an observation about the behavior.

“I’m noticing that you’ve objected to every idea someone’s offered. Why is that?”

Sometimes, that will stop the deluge. When it doesn’t, you can say,

“You have the right to your opinions and input, but our purpose here is to find solutions, not just shut down suggestions. If you have something to offer that’s constructive, that would be helpful.”

You can word it however you like, but make it clear that chronic complaints or negative responses aren’t helpful.

2. Say how the behavior is affecting you.

Let the person know that the extent of complaining or negatively is distressing you and you’re uncomfortable with it. By doing that, you check it, and most people will stop or at least minimize it.

Under the Table Criticism

In this case, the troublemaker launches somewhat concealed criticisms that don’t match the delivery. They make minor objections with a smile.

The mother-in-law says to her daughter-in-law,

“Dear, don’t you think it would be best if kids had a bath before dinner?”or “Why don’t you put some garlic in your gravy, dear, to give it a little more flavor.”

These are critical shots taken at the other person but couched in flowery language. Sometimes, the criticisms are not so veiled. But either way, the motive is to make the other person feel inadequate and usually unappreciated. The underlying motive is often jealousy.

The Strategies:

You have two choices with this one.

1. Let it roll off you.

That works if you clearly understand these comments come from the other person’s issues and you don’t take them personally even though they’re directed at you. Sometimes, you can use humor to offset them.

2. Set a boundary.

Start by letting the person know they’re hurting you with these comments. That usually puts a stop to it. They’ll likely deny that that was their intent, but it will not matter if it halts the behavior.

If they tell you you’re being too sensitive, you can say,

“Whether you think I’m being sensitive or not, I don’t appreciate the comments and ask you to stop.”

You could also decide not to respond to the “sensitivity” characterization. You’ve already made it clear you don’t like the comments. You don’t need the last word. Sometimes, saying less is more effective.

Entitlement and Neediness

Being needy is not necessarily a tool to cause trouble, but it has the same effect. This person wants a lot of attention and demands it.

The methods used vary from being dramatic, demanding to have their way, needing extra favors and courtesies, being entitled, ignoring the rules, and rolling over other people’s desires and needs.

Being around someone who displays these behaviors is exhausting!

Think of that one family member who comes to visit and needs all kinds of extras. They’re oblivious to the work the host is doing and think nothing of asking for more.

They incite the kids to act out by ignoring rules the parents have set down and made clear.

They interrupt, take over conversations, and need special provisions.

The Strategies:

There’s only one to use in this case:

Set boundaries!

  • Be clear and direct about what’s okay and what’s not.
  • Set rules around behaviors you don’t like and stick to them.
  • Don’t give in to unnecessary demands.

You can do this while still being kind. But by all means, don’t give in. This person will push if there’s even the slightest opening to get what they want.

Not My Fault

“I’m not to blame” is the underlying premise in this case, and the tool the troublemaker uses is projection. These folks:

  • Create problems or messy situations and blame it on someone else.
  • Complain about or accuse other people of doing the very things they do.
  • Blame other people as the cause of their misbehavior.

Using projection to sidestep their poor behavior, these troublemakers stir other people up. They create conflict, mistrust, and anger.

The Strategies:

1. Set boundaries.

Again, you can try setting boundaries by calling out the behavior. If the person has a conscience, they may listen or stop using the same excuses and projections.

2. Don’t react.

Don’t take in the projections. If you don’t accept them, they lose their power.

The tricky thing about projection is that it isn’t always easy to see, and people who use it generally won’t acknowledge it. Often, they believe their projections, so you have no leverage to talk about them. But you don’t have to accept or defend against them.

3. Avoid the person.

Reduce time spent with this person, or avoid them altogether if possible.

Two Shortcuts

In all cases of troublemaking, keeping your reactivity in check will help. Troublemakers like to stir the pot. They thrive off conflict, negativity, and chaos. When you don’t participate, it deflates them and interrupts their process.

Secondly, always look to motive when you’re not sure what’s going on. That’ll help you determine how to proceed.

That’s all for today!

I wish you Happy Holidays!

All my best,


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