Dealing with Difficult People: The Provocateur

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Just because other people are fueled by drama, doesn’t mean you need to attend the performance. – Cheryl Richardson

I was busily working away at my new firm when the head of my department crept into my office, eyes wide. She hunched her shoulders down, looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot and said in a hushed tone, “Do you have a second? I have to tell you something.” She closed my office door.

She proceeded to tell me that a colleague had a problem with some work that I had done. Her story didn’t ring true for me, however and I felt a tiny hint of suspicion. I worked very closely with this colleague, felt we worked well together and he had continued to refer his projects to me. Why would he do that if he wasn’t happy?

My self-doubt crept in, however, and I automatically and unconsciously assumed what my colleague had to say was correct. I was in a new environment and didn’t known the terrain, so my concern about the problem was drowning out my intuition about the situation. After all, it would be pretty crazy for someone to just make something up like that, right?

I reached out to a couple of colleagues of mine whom I felt might be trustworthy. There were a few closed door meetings as I tried to quietly get a handle on the situation. I spoke to the department head a couple of more times without much resolution. Her story seemed to change each time I spoke with her, leaving me even more confused.

After a little while, the whole process began to feel futile. My work was piling up because I had become distracted. I resolved to just work harder and be extra careful in general. The hubbub seemed to have died down and a couple of months went by uneventfully.

Then, a new member of our department walked into my office and confided in me that the department head had crept into her office and relayed negative feedback from a different department member. The new recruit was equally as stunned by it as I had been and it had not matched up with her experience.

That is when I noticed the pattern. Every few months the department head would report another complaint about someone. The “someone” was usually a newer or younger member of staff. Someone who was vulnerable, in other words. The pattern of various separate discussions behind closed doors would start all over again. I realized our department head was creating a lot of drama at the expense of others. I felt I had been transported back to third grade, where the mean girls would talk behind other people’s backs for sport.

In their shock and surprise and anger, few members of my department would actually ask their “accuser” if, in fact, he or she had really given negative feedback to our department head. That is one way the drama was enabled to continue. Within fairly short order, the department was made up of people full of suspicion about one another and the closed door meetings only heightened the drama.

Do I think my department head was conscious of her behavior? Probably not. My guess is that she was used to seeking out drama wherever she could by taking any shred, glimmer or suspicion of negativity about another and expanding it a thousand times into something else. This interpretation does not excuse the behavior, but it does help to understand how a Provocateur seems to have endless energy with which to attempt to draw others in to a drama with them. Those people around Provocateurs, however, are exhausted by their antics.

It took me a while to see the pattern but once I did, I made sure I was no longer available to participate in any meetings resulting from anyone’s attempt – intentionally or unintentionally – to inflame the gossip and conflict. I responded instead by disconnecting from them for all reasons except a work project. Sorry, I just don’t have time to talk. So much to do. Big deadline. Meetings and calls all day.

For those of us who tend to perceive the world through our intellect, rather than our emotions, we can easily miss the “big picture” of a situation. I could have continued banging my head against the rumors – working ever harder while questioning my own abilities – instead of listening to my intuition which told me someone was being inflammatory for self-serving reasons.

Provocateurs cause distress in others as a way to avoid their own feelings of distress. They use drama in the same way that many others use alcohol and drugs to numb or to avoid their own negative feelings. All things rational threaten to silence the cacophony of noise a Provocateur’s drama creates, so they reject any true resolution of a problem. They actually feel energized by sitting around and talking about a problem for hours, while the rest of us are exhausted by such a thought.

A person can be a Provocateur, but any group or organization can adopt a culture of provocation as well. In this political climate, for instance, many are shaking their heads in disbelief wondering why others are so adamantly espousing fake news, rejecting scientific proof and devaluing humanity. Are that many people really that stupid? No, I don’t think so. I believe that many are Provocateurs who try to engage others into drama by aligning with the most publicly inflammatory people and ideas possible. They are actively seeking out conflict with others and delighting in seeing others upset, in an attempt to avoid the sting of their own misfortunes.

Getting caught up in the actual accuracy or inaccuracy of a Provocateur’s statements and trying to convince them with hard evidence is futile. No amount of rationality changes their behavior or opinion. It is as if they are invested in remaining in conflict with others – because they are.

I find it helpful to take a big step back and just picture a Provocateur as holding up a great big sign that says, “I love to irritate people. I delight in seeing you upset.” Seeing them from that perspective really deflates their inflammatory posturing, doesn’t it?

Fortunately, just because someone is craving your negative attention doesn’t mean you need to give it to them. Engaging with them only fuels their fire. Instead, keep an eye out and avoid engaging with a Provocateur in the first place. Redirect your energy and attention to actively restoring truth, integrity and humanity everywhere you can.

I do not believe that Provocateurs wake up each morning with a clearly formed intention to create conflict with someone – or to pit people against one another. They usually aren’t conscious of their behavior because they have been doing it their entire lives. Someone probably modeled that behavior to them, they picked it up and they have no self-awareness about it.

Once I’ve identified someone as a Provocateur, I disconnect. In my workplace, I stopped worrying about the gossip swirling around me and focused on my own practice, which was going really well. In a personal relationship, I will say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t do drama.” There is no need to explain – because a Provocateur will feign confusion in their response anyway.

Until they resolve the issues they are trying to avoid by provoking others to engage in a drama with them, the Provocateur’s behavior will not change. If there is too long of a lull between disagreements, they will simply create a new one in order to keep chaos and drama as the order of the day. In short, no rational response will resolve anything. What we can do, however, is to trust our own intuition above another’s perception, resist any temptation to rationalize with someone who isn’t rational and disconnect from the Provocateur immediately. Your time and energy is too precious to be wasted.

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