We have a twenty-something nurse on our staff who is a “know-it-all,” which the rest of us with many years of nursing experience find hard to fathom. She is aggressive and disrespectful to her colleagues, saying things such as “You’re not doing that procedure right,” or “That’s not the right way to do that,” or “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
She intimidates and offends her coworkers and sometimes comes across as threatening. She has to “win” the conversation by having the last word.
When management has spoken to her about this “know-it-all” attitude, she expresses great surprise at the way she comes across.
What should a helpful, productive, but crucial conversation with this person sound like?
Dealing with a Know-It-All
What do you do when you have concluded that another person is a “know-it-all,” intimidating, overbearing, aggressive, disrespectful, and/or offensive in the way he or she communicates around seemingly every topic? From offices to neighborhoods to extended and immediate families, this is a familiar challenge to many.
To address this challenge, let me break it down to several questions:
1. What am I doing currently? The most common approach to dealing with someone who is aggressive and abrasive is to cope—that is, to bite your lip, think bad thoughts, and perhaps gossip about them. Avoidance is the epidemic interpersonal problem. When we don’t address the issue, we are giving tacit approval—essentially saying, “This is okay; we’re cool; no problem.” Another approach is to fire back. We get into debate mode. What’s important to note here is that the power of logic will not prevail. Eventually, the victor will be the one with the most will power. There can be friction and sparks; and generally, someone will lose. That person will then cope and try to find clever ways to get even. My advice is to avoid both of these options.
2. What should I be talking about? In Crucial Confrontations we teach how to choose WHAT issue you should address. The key here is to determine whether the issue is a matter of Content, Pattern, or Relationship. If you clarify the issue by determining which of these categories it fits into, you will be more likely to resolve it. In your scenario, your three options look like this:
a. Content. These are the topics you are discussing or debating. It could be about procedures, processes, decisions, etc. You could say, “Could we talk? I noticed yesterday that when we talked about the patient’s IV, you said, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ I didn’t get a chance to share all of what I was thinking. Could we talk about how we can both share our thoughts in a more effective way?” You want to talk about the content if the issue is a clear-cut, first-time problem that needs to be remedied.
b. Pattern. This occurs when you see something happening over and over. The content is only part of the problem—the recurrence is the bigger and more costly issue. Clearly you have a pattern here. You could say, for example, “I’d like to talk to you about how we interact at work. I’ve noticed a pattern that when we are talking, you interrupt me and have to have the last word. I have some observations and would like to see if we could find a way to minimize this pattern.”
c. Relationship. This category focuses on how you work together and includes respect, confidence, and trust. You might begin with the observation of the pattern, and then end with something like, “The way you treat me is beginning to cause me to withdraw and to withhold my opinion. I am starting to avoid you and I feel bad because I would like for us to be able to work together and discuss issues openly to come to the best solution. I’d like to work this out.”
Choosing the right topic will mean that you haven’t bailed out by choosing to address the easy-to-discuss issue over the more complex, but potentially more relevant, issues. Put the right issue on the table and then ask and speak candidly and professionally.
3. Am I making any common errors? Here is a common error or two that people make that can cause complications with this sort of discussion. The first error is to lead with generalizations and emotions—“Look, you know-it-all, I have had it up to here! Why don’t you let others talk once it a while?” Such an outbreak isn’t the most effective way of creating the kind of safe environment needed to work out issues. It also makes it harder for the other person to understand what led you to those conclusions. We can’t lead with emotions and accusations and be helpful. It doesn’t matter if you are yelling or if your contempt is sitting delicately and quietly behind your frozen smile. Start with the facts to make it safe and to make the problem clear for the other person.
Second, if new emotions arise, call for a short time out and restate your real purpose. You want to talk about the issues in ways that are safe and helpful. Sometimes a ten-minute time out can help calm the emotions to re-engage.
4. What do I do once the issue is out on the table and we both understand that it’s a problem? It’s important to come to agreement on how the situation will be handled in the future. Sometimes you need to get agreement that one or both of you will stop doing a certain behavior—like interrupting, getting emotional, or having the last word. Or you’ll need to get agreement that you will start doing something—for example, that when either of you see that behavior real time, you will point it out somehow as a trigger to change the behavior.