Conflict Resolution Part 6: Red Flags

86155_2332Here are the red flags that I observed about the problematic person I mentioned in Part 5 (and others in similar situations) that allowed me to paint a fairly accurate profile of how they were going to behave. You’ll really want to read at least Part 5 in the Conflict Resolution series, if not the whole set of articles, to get context for the profile of behaviors below.

Complaining
There’s a difference between offering a different opinion, and whining all the time. And then, when people offer that they are frustrated about the whining, backpedaling and profusely apologizing and making it about yourself. Sometimes there are people with that engineering mindset that challenge a group’s ideas about how to do something, and that doesn’t make them a bad person. Those folks can generally learn how to phrase things in a way that doesn’t come across as “You’re wrong” all the time. A constant whiner, or someone who never likes the group leader’s ideas but who never has any useful ideas to offer of their own. The pattern’s easiest to observe if the person is constantly tearing down the group leader’s ideas. If so, it’s possibly a power play, even if it’s unconscious.

Always Having Problems
The problematic individual in the group is always having problems. Now–it’s not to say that many people don’t go through struggles. However, this person never has gas money, never has time, computer is broken, is always sick. I’m not saying that someone who is broke and sick is always a red flag. Think of this as a mosaic; it’s one piece in the pattern. If the group leader points out, “If you’re sick, you don’t have to attend the meeting,” or “We can have you phone in if you can’t afford to drive,” and their response is either a swift turnaround, “No! Of course I’ll come,” or hostile, “Why do we always have to meet where you want to?” Those are both serious red flags.

It’s All About Them
This individual can make any conversation about them. Usually about their problems. Or, about how nobody listens to them. Or about how the group always goes with someone else’s idea. In particular, they will lay blame and ascribe particular motivations to people. “You guys don’t really care about my opinion, you always go with what ___ says.” They are willing to entertain any notion that it’s someone else’s fault, not that 1. their idea might be bad, or 2. the group decided to do something based upon the needs of the rest of the group without any malice toward this individual.

Victim Mentality
This person also typically approaches everything with a victim mentality. People are out to get them. In fact, they usually come into a group with stories about how they got kicked out of previous groups by jerky leaders. Do yourself a favor and check out their story, even if you don’t know those other group leaders yet. These folks will also frequently be cursed, hexed, under psychic attack, their boss is out to get them, their mother in law hates them, the man is always trying to stick it to them…you get the drift.

Pathetic Underdog
The goal of being pathetic is to get attention. People aren’t stupid, and we learn pretty quickly that there’s different ways to get attention, and one is to be pathetic. People like to caretake an underdog. The problematic individual in a group works to be so pathetic that they get their way. The group may come up with an idea ABC for an event, and the problematic individual hems and haws, and talks about how broke they are and can’t do it, or, about how nobody listens to them, or some other sob story. They work to be so pathetic that they not only get time and attention and cosseting from the codependent caretakers in the group, but, people go with their ideas.

Very Important Magical People
This person may pendulum swing from being the most pathetic person in the group who is always having problems, to a very powerful Witch. Either they know a lot about spellwork and hexing, or, they are desperate to learn powerful magic to control others. Often these are folks who have amazingly gained the skills to harm others with magic, or to psychically attack others. Also, they were powerful people in a past life. Or, they are a reincarnated Babylonian God. They can sink into a trance and get possessed by a deity without any effort, in fact, sometimes it causes them, you know, severe problems because the Gods are always trying to get into them. They aren’t responsible for it, it just happens, and then they aren’t responsible for their actions, of course.

No Therapy
When they are in victim mode talking about all their problems, some well-meaning person might suggest therapy to this person. “My therapist was trying to kill me,” they might say. Or, “My therapist wanted to commit me. I had to get away.” Some version of therapist/psychiatrist conspiracy theory conveniently leads to why this person is no longer on their medication. Now–here’s the challenge on this one. Certainly Pagans, as members of a minority spirituality, face discrimination including discrimination from psychological professionals.

Talking to gods and spirits, casting spells, sounds like a bunch of superstitious nonsense and for a therapist, that can be a red flag for schizophrenia, among other things.So certainly it’s possible, however, these days I don’t really hear many first-hand stories of Pagans who have had issues with therapists. I have heard of medical doctors and therapists trying to scare their patients who had chosen a polyamorous/ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, but no direct discrimination against Pagans.

The actual red flags in this are the paranoia of the psychological professionals being out to get the person, and the big red flag is “I’m not on my meds, I didn’t need them.” Again–none of these on their own are a reason to kick someone out of a group. But taken in concert, they paint a larger picture of someone who is going to consistently cause conflict in your group unless they get help. And–as I’ve pointed out over and over, you can’t fix anyone. You can take them to the door and offer to help, you can’t make them go through it.

Backstabbing and Gossip
This one probably is no surprise; this person is going to feel threatened by anyone in power, and they will either charge at them head on in meetings or online discussions to try and discredit them, but more commonly they will work behind the scenes to gain a coalition of people onto their side. They will trashtalk anyone to make themselves sound better.

Grandiose
This person also is usually the first to volunteer. If they have money, they often put forth money into the group, but it’s a donation with a catch. They donate money, and what they want is power and especially attention. There was one person I worked with who volunteered to bring in an expensive band from out of town for an event, but it had to be a band of her choosing, and she later used the band as a way to take the group hostage and to get people to do things the way she wanted. If the person is not financially abundant, they might take on a lot of volunteering roles.

An experienced group leader will see someone taking on a lot of volunteering not as a positive thing but as a red flag; very often, this is a sign that someone is trying to have attention paid to them. Because, 1. Volunteers are “good.” They are loved. And given that the problematic person has a huge core of self esteem issues, they need all the external love that they can get. 2. Their ideas get used. Nothing feels better to a person with poor self esteem than the illusion that people love them, and seeing their ideas take shape and the group working to make them happen can be a balm onto that gaping wound of self loathing. But it never lasts, because they aren’t healing that wound, just numbing it for a time.

Dropping the Ball
We all have things coming up in our lives, and sometimes we can’t meet the obligations we agreed to, and volunteer tasks usually get trumped by paid work, family, and health. However, someone who consistently drops the ball is a red flag. In fact, the Grandiose Volunteering is so very often followed by Dropping the Ball. It’s a one-two punch.

I should point out that I personally have been guilty of a number of these in my life. I used to volunteer to help out groups as a web designer and graphic designer. People didn’t like me, of course, I knew that. Nobody liked me, I was the outcast, the reject, the unpopular one. But they liked my artwork, they liked my web design. They liked that I helped.

Of course, I had said “yes” to way too many projects and got overwhelmed and dropped the ball. In fact, that’s something I still struggle with. But that’s the core difference here–the problem person we’re talking about is largely unaware that they are doing all of this. I’m here to tell you that some people, when made aware, can work to change their behavior. Relentless personal work and some therapy can go a long way.

Other folks, however, are not going to change. Or, not easily change.

Big Emotions and Oversensitivity
I posted a couple of blogs and links to articles about hypersensitivity. The problem person will typically have emotional reactions that are a few orders of magnitude outside of what is appropriate or reasonable. Again, they are always the victim, so they are always going to see that people are out to get them. So when someone suggests something that opposes what this person wants in the group, they are going to throw a big drama fit about it.

It’s emotional hostage taking, and it works. The codepedent members of the group will want to “fix” the agitated individual by caving to what they want. Codependent folks cannot stand big emotions. And that’s a whole separate set of dysfunctions, but you can begin to see the interplay of group dynamics and how someone as problematic as this type of individual can survive and thrive in a group even when they are causing so many obvious problems. People hate to kick out the underdog.

Sometimes you can catch this red flag early on by watching this person’s Facebook and Twitter posts or their blog entries. I know a few folks that, after reading their LiveJournal, I realized I would never, ever want to work with them, because they laid out enough red flags right there that I was pretty clear that working with them would be impossible.

This person is hypersensitive, defensive, and always has to be right. They can’t cope with being wrong and will either bully people into their point of view, or cry and be pathetic to “win” the argument.

Highly Creative and Disorganized
You are probably asking how this is bad. And–again, like any of these red flags, it’s not the whole picture. However, someone who constantly has big ideas, but is completely disorganized and cannot realize any of them, may not be the influence you want in your group, particularly if your group function is planning a festival or Pride event. This person tends to come up with huge ideas and start them, but not finish them. Their big ideas leave messes in other people’s laps.

Here’s where this flag becomes more obvious. This person gets kicked out of a local group, or gets dissatisfied. So they create their own group. Now–this could be a physical local group, or a Facebook group. Sometimes it’s a grandiose vision to create their own tradition, other times it’s a plan to create their own event. But then they vanish; they get sick, or are dealing with a chronic illness, or their computer broke, or…or….something always comes up.

Spiteful
The person tries to hide under the veneer of pathetic, but they actually come across as pretty spiteful if you watch. They will rarely have anything good to say about people with more power or creativity than them. They betray jealousy and anger in their comments about others. They gossip. They tear others down. Why? Well–let’s remember, these people have terrible self esteem. Tearing down is easier than stepping into responsibility for themselves and becoming the person they dream of being, the person who could lead a group and be successful and manifest their dreams. Instead, it’s easier to blame everyone else.

One-on-One Time
The problematic individual will take more of your time than every other member of your group. They will be hurt or upset by something someone said and need to be talked down a wall. Or they will message you all the time wanting to know what’s up, wanting to connect to you socially even though they don’t hold that role in your life. They will take umbrage at something you said and cry on the phone with you for hours while you comfort them. Or they will want to bounce some ideas off of you and take up still more of your time while they are looking for validation.

Summary, and Personal Growth
I’m going to let you in on a little secret; and, if you regularly read my blog, it probably won’t be much of a surprise. I, personally, have done many of the bad behaviors that I listed above. I’ve been a problem person in groups before, although it wasn’t my intention. I can honestly say that I wasn’t usually belligerent or spiteful, nor was I throwing big drama fits. I was never claiming to be a reincarnated Babylonian god. However, I was often the person who got heard by complaining. I’m the eager volunteer who dropped the ball.

Why? well, I had the worst self esteem you can imagine.

I came out of the public school system a suicidal self-hating mess. I was fat with acne and so stressed out that when I was 12 I pulled out half the hair on my head. It’s called Trichotillomania, and it’s a behavior that emerges as a coping mechanism for extreme stress. It took me years and years of personal growth work to get past a lot of these things. And, the old wounds don’t ever fully heal, in the sense that, I can’t go back in time and undo what happened to me. What I can do is decide that my life is going to be different going forward.

I’m really good at picking up these red flags because that’s how shadow works–we see the dark mirror of ourselves and our own bad behaviors in others. In fact, one of the best lessons (if painful) in personal growth is to observe the people around you and what annoys you about them. And then ask yourself, “Do I do that?”

Often enough, the things that annoy you in others are actually things you do that you secretly fear will annoy others.

Only once you acknowledge these things by looking in the mirror can you even begin to address those shadows. And I cannot encompass the entire process of shadow work here in these articles, though I can offer beginnings. T. Thorn Coyle writes eloquently about working to embrace and integrate our shadows. Or you can find a good Jungian therapist.

I often say that the secret to leadership–and to conflict resolution–is relentless personal work. I’m the poster child for it. I have worked to become a more whole person. Is my work done? Heck no. I have tons of issues. But I have come a long way. So I’m here to say that people who are engaging in the above harmful behaviors can change. It’s not pretty, and it takes a long time.

And many won’t. You can’t fix them. And if someone is engaging in consistent behaviors that is going to harm your group, you may have to ask them to leave, because otherwise, in a year you won’t have a group to build, it’ll implode or explode. And then you can’t help anyone.

More articles coming up in the leadership series, so stay tuned.

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One thought on “Conflict Resolution Part 6: Red Flags

  1. Pingback: Advanced Facilitation: Dealing with Problematic Behavior | Shauna Aura Knight

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