Attention: How Do I Deal With That Annoying Person?

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You know that person who sucks up all the attention in the room? The one who cracks a joke at an inopportune moment? Taps their pen on the conference room desk? Stands at your door while you’re on the phone or otherwise annoys and irritates you?

There is nothing so annoying as having two people talking when you’re busy interrupting.”

Mark Twain

I was mentoring a Manager named Maggie on development of her direct reports concerning their relationships, productivity and engagement. During this session, one such employee named Robert came to her office door and hovered. Maggie stopped talking with me to ask Robert what he needed and to answer his questions. I could tell Maggie was mildly exasperated so when Robert left, I asked her about him.

Maggie described that Robert, while fairly harmless, often seemed to have trivial reasons for coming to her office throughout the day. He had petty complaints, newsy comments, and seemed to need frequent support at inconvenient times. Most recently, he had started asking questions for which she believed he already knew the answers or could easily find them. She confessed Robert generally tried her patience. Just the day before, he stood in her doorway for no apparent reason. Her feelings of mild annoyance were the key to Robert’s mistaken goal pattern.

I asked Maggie if she’d like some help with Robert. Her enthusiastic response, “If you can help me with Robert, I’m all ears!” I explained to Maggie it sounded like Robert was often operating out of a mistaken goal of negative behavior called the goal of “undue attention.” This goal is one in which a person mistakenly believes that to connect or feel important, they must have extra attention. In their discouragement or from feeling a lack of empowerment and contribution, they believe attention equals caring and confirms their value. I explained that the person on the receiving end of this goal feels mildly irritated and annoyed just like when a fly repeatedly lands on your nose!

I taught Maggie how to redirect Robert when in this goal. “As you see Robert coming to your office or doing something annoying, 1) think positive thoughts about him such as “I’m so glad you’re one of my team! I’m very happy to be your manager.” 2) If possible, don’t interrupt your flow or disrespect your activity with eye contact or words. 3) At the same time, get closer physically to Robert or motion him to move towards you. 4) If his attention-seeking behavior does not stop, thoughtfully take an action that would indicate your desire for the behavior to cease without breaking your flow. For example, if he’s tapping his pen, rather than stopping, looking or saying, “hey can you stop that?” walk over to him, think positive thoughts and patiently put your hand on his pen, all while continuing your conversation. If he’s at your door, point to the hall gently. In other words, stay connected, respectful, and warm, without disrespecting your routine or needs.

I taught this to a schoolteacher once who had a student much like Robert. One day, she said to her, “Why do you think you come to my desk everyday to ask questions?” The girl said, “Because I need help.” The teacher said, “I noticed yesterday when you came to my desk and I didn’t answer your questions, (she had been redirecting) you quietly did all your work without my input. Could it be you want more attention from me?” This teacher was doing what’s called “disclosing the goal”; bringing awareness to a person who chronically uses a goal. Disclosure is done while a person is not in the negative behavior and invites empathy for the recipient of the goal as a motivator.

Next, the teacher negotiated with the student and created an agreement for reasonable attention that respected both them. Negotiating for attention ultimately reduces the need for it and it ceases relatively quickly. In this case, the teacher also looked for opportunities in which this student could gain legitimate attention through service whereby she ceased manipulating for undue attention altogether. The gift of redirecting negative behavior is you are able to meet the core needs of others while building rapport and helping them move from discouragement to encouragement. Redirect is a powerful way to lead and develop others while maintaining respect for everyone (including you) in the process.

This article was published nationally in The Women’s Journal in the column Emotional Intelligence, December 2011.

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