Dealing with Difficult People: The Know-It-All

 For a couple of weeks this summer, I’m writing about difficult people — who they are and how to deal with them. Last week I wrote about bullies and “yes people” (and you can see all six kinds of difficult people here).

Today I’m going to write about Know-It-Alls (KIAs). This happens to be one of the kinds of difficult people that irks me most. It’s not that I think I know it all myself; in fact the opposite is true. The older I get, the more I realize that no one can know everything — and it’s generally more interesting to  explore how others see the world than to listen to one’s own self talk and  talk and talk.

But there’s a KIA in every crowd, sometimes even two. You can spot them by their condescending attitude, their run-on conversations, their constant criticism of others, and their inability to entertain the opinions or even existence of other people. My own instinct is to flee when KIAs start talking, but of course while you can do that at a cocktail party, you can’t do it at a meeting, in a small work space, or at a dinner party.

Now, just one word of warning. Oftentimes KIAs are masking deep insecurities. So if you try to call their bluff or in any way make them seem like they are not the smartest people in the whole wide world, they may get snarky. I.e., they get more condescending. They try to intimidate you. They take a sharper, more sarcastic tone. Some even start yelling.

It’s not attractive, it’s not mature, and it’s not effective, but that’s how KIAs work.

KIAs also tend to be maddening because it’s hard to get on their wavelength. As Laura Benjamin, a business coach in Colorado writes, “They lack the quality of humility, which makes it very difficult to relate to them in a ‘human to human” manner.’ Their self-protective defenses are quite strong and designed to keep others out rather than invite them in.”

As such, one trick with KIAs is to only ask them logistical or technical questions — stuff they really know about.

For instance, ask the KIA who loves dogs where the best dog park is.  Ask the KIA software designer about the difference between a Blackberry and an iPhone. Ask the policy KIA about Obama’s health care plan. I.e., play up to their expertise to keep them on an even keel and prevent a storm of insecurity. Talk about books, religion, and history with people who aren’t going to lord their superior knowledge over you.

Another strategy is to simply shrug KIAs off. All of their annoying characteristics — the condescending tone, the inability to truly converse with others — are symptoms of their own problems, not a true measure of your worth. Again, pointing out to them that they are — heaven forbid — wrong isn’t going to result in an “aha moment” in which they realize the errors of their ways. Instead it will trigger retribution. End result: you have more grief to deal with. And it’s always better to be working on keeping yourself calm and relaxed than struggling to tame an ego gone wild.