How to handle an obnoxious person

A reader from Ocean City writes,

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I always associate our annual condo meetings with the start of a great summer. This year, however, I have discovered that the new president of our association is’well, just plain obnoxious. He barks orders like we’re in boot camp, talks WAY too much, and has already taken to sending nasty letters for even the slightest infraction (or what he sees as an infraction). I can see that he’s going to ruin my summer as well as that of many of our residents. What can we do to handle this guy other than vote him out of office next year?


Dear Reader,

I’ll start by being blunt. Nobody can ruin your summer without your full consent and participation. There are lots of days and hours in the summer, and this obnoxious guy need only be part of a small number of those days and hours. Yes, you’ll need some strategies for coping with him while you’re in his presence. But for the rest of the time, while you’re doing the things you enjoy, you’re free to mentally pick him up and put him on a shelf somewhere (or wherever else you’d like to visualize him—probably best not to reveal that’).

Second, in the interest of giving this guy the benefit of the doubt, is there any evidence that he shares at least some of your goals? Do you both aim for the same result, only by differing means? If so, it might or might not help to point this out to him. It will definitely help to point this out to yourself—over and over—as the summer progresses. I know that in the typical condo association, most people want the same things: Peace, quiet, and pleasant surroundings. Find the common ground and seek it out with him. Ignore his nonsense. If he says something annoying, try not to show a reaction, at least to his face. I suggest this because some people run for condo president (or any presidency, now that I think of it) because they have an unhealthy or irrational need for power.

What does ‘power’ mean, exactly? It can mean a lot of things, but in the context of a condo association it often indicates a desire to get reactions from other people. Take a comedian, for example. A comedian elicits reactions through professional techniques that bring joy to people. Your power-hungry condo president, on the other hand, just wants to get a reaction, not really for any constructive purpose. Why? Get ready: Because it makes him feel alive. Neurotic, unhealthy behavior is fueled in part by a need to shock, anger or irritate others for nothing other than the sake of doing so. Most of us feel alive by living life to the fullest, doing good work and the like. Not so with an obnoxious neurotic.

I don’t know if this describes the motivational personality profile of this man, and I’m certainly not suggesting it describes everyone who seeks any kind of office. The real issue here is what causes his obnoxious behavior. Because obnoxious people can’t get validation from within themselves, they seek reactions from others by being blowhards. It’s something they’ve found that works. And get ready for this: Such a person would be happy to know how annoyed you are by his behavior. That’s another reason why I stress that you don’t let him know that he irritates you. When he sees this, he gets the confirmation he wants. ‘Oh, I annoyed her. She reacted to me. That means I’m somebody.’ Though he probably doesn’t actually say the words to himself, it’s what he feels. Human behavior isn’t always a pretty picture.

Overall, be realistic. That means not expecting more than this man will (or is able to) deliver, but it also means not totally writing him off. While a few people are thoroughly obnoxious, most started out as more reasonable and have a few rational elements left that you can work with. To test this, make a list of what you’d like to achieve with your association. Remind yourself that you might not accomplish any of them, but that’s OK because next year you can vote-in somebody different. If you try to keep in mind that you and he might actually share a few goals in common, then work together on those. Compliment and flatter him if you like, in the interest of getting things done. Some progress is better than none.

I feel sorry for some (not all) obnoxious people. Some of them mean no harm and are just trying to do things right. They drive people away, and when they sense this they panic and get worse. This is the responsibility of the obnoxious person who refuses to identify his errors and change his ways. And, it’s sadder for him than for those he annoys. After all, we can (literally or figuratively) vote such people out of our lives. But, sadly, they still have to go on being who they are, long after you’re done with them.