Some people are really good at reading others. Those lucky individuals can often tell instantly if a potential client, employee, or acquaintance isn’t a good match. Maybe they can’t put it into words exactly, but they get that gut feeling, and they somehow KNOW that something about the relationship just isn’t going to work.

And then there’s the rest of us.

Those of us who don’t have the same antennae or sixth sense. We happily walk around assuming the best in people and giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes multiple times.

Often, we rely on logic, reason, or rationalizations to analyze the various relationships in our lives— instead of digging deep into the amygdala to access that primitive part of the brain that relies on instincts and feelings about whether or not our hackles should be up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make navigating personal interactions a bit more complicated.

One of the hardest things for logical types (INTP, anyone?) to do is assess when a seemingly nice person is actually nice or only appearing to be nice on the surface.

Working with a person who is super sweet one minute but turns into Cruella De Vil the next is a huge challenge. These types of relationships leave you feeling shocked, confused, and off-balance. They can even affect people physically in the form of stomach aches, migraines, anxiety, and general malaise.

If you’re made of steel, you might be able to simply laugh these folks and their antics off, but if you’re sensitive, you could start spending all day Sunday fretting about what the coming work week will bring. Or writing your resignation letter.

And while this may sound like a personal problem, if it’s happening at work, it’s also a business problem.

This kind of behavior can decrease productivity, increase workplace conflict and absenteeism, and cause good employees to leave. And as long as the manipulators stay around (and they will stay), employee engagement, retention, and morale are at risk.

What’s the motivation?


A friend of mine recently told me something very wise. “Even nice people can be manipulative.” Oh, man. After slapping myself on the forehead, I realized she was completely right.

Many perfectly nice people have figured out how to get what they want by using tactics that make other people feel uncertain or uneasy. When someone is feeling insecure, they are much more likely to bend to the will of others. And so the nice people can go back to being perfectly nice people again. And let me tell you, there’s nothing brighter than the smile of someone who has just gotten something they really wanted.


Winning gives you a feeling of power. But so does unpredictability. Those who prefer to keep everybody walking on eggshells, worried about what they might do or say next know this all too well. First they earn your trust, then they break it just enough to make you question what you did wrong. While you’re caught backpedaling, they’re slowly harnessing more and more power in the relationship.

And the cycle repeats. There they are, killing you with kindness, and just when the trust returns… boom. Before you even realize what’s happening, that inch you were willing to give turned into a mile. Or twenty. Meanwhile, you’re left feeling like it was somehow all your fault. And maybe even crafting some kind of apology. If only you could figure out what for.


Often, this need for power and control is fueled by intense feelings of insecurity. Individuals who live with the feeling of not being good enough often end up trying to inflict that same feeling onto others. Maybe this makes them feel superior for a moment, or at least more equal.

Those prone toward empathy may recognize this pattern for what it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. In fact, it may be considerably more difficult to react after realizing that the tormenter is actually the tormented. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the tormenter may not even fully realize what he or she is doing.

So how do you deal with a Jekyll and Hyde?

Unfortunately, there are no magic answers here. Each scenario will be different. But here are a few hard-earned tips:

Trust your gut 

If you’re getting a woozy, suspicious, or funny feeling about a potential business connection, pay attention. Do some additional checking around. Talk to people who know or have worked with them. Do a social media or Google search. If you’re considering hiring this person, schedule a follow up interview and invite some additional people to sit in who are willing to give another perspective.

Set boundaries

If your personal and professional boundaries are clearly defined and firmly in place, you’ll have an easier time sticking to them. It may also help you react more diplomatically to unpredictable behavior.

Have a few canned responses in your pocket that you can pull out when needed: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and “This isn’t appropriate to discuss right now,” can help put uncomfortable discussions back on track. Even something like “I’m on a deadline here,” can be a good conversation stopper. Just because someone wants to engage with you doesn’t mean you have to get sucked in. Learn to say no and, if necessary, walk away.


If you’re dealing with unhealthy interactions on a regular basis, start documenting dates, times, and specific events. Whether you’re talking to HR, your BFF, or directly to your tormenter, re-telling stories from memory is going to be less effective than keeping detailed notes on each interaction. If you can get other people in the room, eye witnesses are also helpful.

Move on

Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people, but sometimes it’s a choice.

If you’ve got a client, customer, employee, networking connection, or friend who is a super nice person, and only makes you feel like crap or rips you a new one every once in a while, do a quick ROI analysis: How much of that time could you invest in other, more positive people who are sincerely interested in healthy relationships and your mutual success? And what would that mean for your life? Your business? Your day-to-day?

It’s not always easy to cut ties, but it’s often the best solution. Once you get some distance, you’ll be able to see a clear picture of just how much damage those “nice” people can do.

Photo by Dmyto Zinkevych

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