Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Handling defensive behaviour

When we perceive a threat – real or imagined – to our well-being or position, we tend to respond in a defensive manner. This defensive response pattern can take many forms, but the overall effect is to prepare us to fight, freeze or flee the threatening situation in order to protect ourselves.

Physically, emotionally and intellectually, we are in an aroused state that is concerned with self-protection and defending.

We will call this ‘red zone’ behaviour. It is not likely to be a place of collaboration, trust building, mutual problem solving or deeper self-reflection and shared accountability.

On the other hand, when we are physically feeling relaxed, safe, alive and emotionally significant, competent and likeable, then we are not likely to behave rigidly or defensively. We are able to be intellectually open and honest and to consciously operate in a non-defensive, cooperative, problem solving, accountable state that we shall refer to as the ‘green zone’.

Red and green zone environments

Red zone

  • Competitive environment
  • Debate
  • Alienate
  • Threaten
  • Cause of anxiety
  • Hide mistakes
  • Avoid failure
  • Rule bound
  • Guardedness
  • Rivalry
  • Hostility
  • Withholding
  • Lower trust
  • Extrinsic motivation
  • Mutually-exclusive goal attainment

Green zone

  • Cooperative environment
  • Dialogue
  • Trust
  • Better communication
  • Perspective taking
  • Explore problems
  • Benefit from mistakes
  • Flexible
  • We like each other more
  • Friendship/respect
  • Work experienced as pleasure
  • Efficient use of resources
  • Increase trust
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Joint goal attainment

Which do you most associate with your own environment?

Red zone behaviours


Check through the list below: which phrases are true of your behaviour/attitudes? Be honest!

A person in the red zone:

  • Feels threatened
  • Triggers survival instincts in others
  • Avoids responsibility for own pain and joy
  • Sees the world as dangerous
  • Needs to be right
  • Uses shame and blame
  • Is reactive and rigid
  • Is self-righteous
  • Sees others as the enemy
  • Is accusing
  • Feels wronged
  • Threatens
  • Is defensive
  • Divides world into right/wrong
  • Seeks to win for self only
  • Does not pay attention to long-term consequences
  • Views conflict like war
  • Feels justified in using any means
  • Is non-forgiving
  • Uses tone of voice and nonverbal signals to communicate disapproval
  • Often defines the problem as ‘the person’
  • Uses avoidance
  • Practises denial
  • Is passive-aggressive (see Assert yourself).

Long-term consequences of red zone behaviour

  • Aloneness
  • Fears
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Emptiness
  • Neediness
  • Self-centeredness
  • Separateness
  • Anxiety
  • Divided self
  • Co-dependency
  • Aggression

Green zone behaviours


Check through the list below: which phrases are true of your behaviour/attitudes? Be honest!

A person in the green zone:

  • Accepts responsibility for the pain/joy in their life
  • Feels centred and personally powerful
  • Perceives reality in the world
  • Is not easily threatened
  • Does not trigger the survival instinct in others
  • Sees others as partners or opponents, not enemies
  • Is consciously purposeful about their intentions
  • Can be hard on problems, soft on people
  • Treats others with respect
  • Seeks solutions rather than blaming
  • Wants to understand others’ point of view
  • Values their own point of view
  • Wants everyone to win, including self
  • Cares about impact on others
  • Is open to influence by others
  • Maintains standards of personal honour, regardless of strong feelings
  • Sees value of letting go and forgiveness
  • Seeks excellence rather than beating someone
  • Acts out of values, principles and reason
  • Communicates a caring attitude
  • Is skilful in dealing with conflict
  • Does not use force or violence
  • Accepts conflict as a natural part of human experience
  • Is open to feedback
  • Learns from mistakes.

Think of someone that you find it difficult to handle.

  • Which zone do you think they are in?
  • Why do you say this?
  • Which behaviours do they demonstrate?
  • How does this make you feel?
  • How do you think they feel?
  • How does this understanding change your perception of the situation?
  • What could you do/change that would change their behaviour?

Triggering event

Each of us has the capacity to operate in the red or the green zone. What triggers us into the green or red zone may be the external environment in which we are operating (we feel pulled into red zone behaviours because everyone around us uses them) or the internal environment we set up for ourselves. The internal environment is set by what we tell ourselves and what we believe.

How do you react in response to a potential trigger? Are your beliefs and self talk negative and undermining or positive and likely to produce a desirable outcome? How do you feel, emotionally and physically? And how do you then behave?

Red zone sequence

Green zone sequence

  • Reactive self-talk

    • This shouldn’t happen.
    • I can’t handle this.
    • This is too much.
    • This is unfair.
    • I should not have to deal with this.
    • This is about my survival.
    • They are out to get me.
    • Only a madman would look at it that way.
    • How dare they!
    • They have no right!
    • That’s stupid!
    • They are bad, evil.
    • They don’t care.
  • Accountable self-talk

    • I don’t like this, but I can handle it.
    • I can deal with this.
    • I need more information.
    • This is curious!
    • What is my responsibility here?
    • This is about collaboration.
    • This not about ‘me’.
    • I can listen; they have a right to a different viewpoint.
    • I can support myself.
    • I can take care of myself.
    • That’s different.
    • What is making them behave this way?
    • What do I want to happen next?
  • Feeling

    • Hurt
    • Threatened
    • Angry
    • Helpless
    • Anxious
  • Feeling

    • Activated
    • Alert
    • Curious
    • Energised
    • Centred
  • Body

    • Numb, charged, cold
    • Uptight, sweaty and tense
  • Body

    • Calm, centred, alert
    • Attentive, alive and curious
  • Behaviour – attitude

    • Red zone aggressive
    • Adversarial climate
    • Win/lose methods
    • Positional power plays
    • Short-term wins
  • Behaviour – attitude

    • Green zone assertive
    • Cooperative climate
    • Win/win problem solving
    • Open to influence
    • Committed to long-term outcomes

Creating and maintaining the green zone

Feelings affect our personal and work effectiveness. A lack of awareness of our own feelings and the feelings others have when they are around us can create a less productive, less personal environment.


I feel that you are significant when you exist for me, when you mean something to me, when I count you in, notice your absence and pay attention to you.

As children, we may build up a sense of being significant from our parents by being paid attention to, being touched and getting positive affirmations. As an adult in work, I will feel significant when I am recognised, given feedback, asked to participate and told my viewpoint is of value.

  • Fears: if you fail to make the other person feel significant or if someone else fails to make you feel significant, they/you will suffer the fear of being ignored or left out.


To me, you are competent when I feel that you can cope with the world, use your abilities and skills to get you through tasks, handle problems as they arise and not be crushed by the weight of the world. In work, I think of you as competent when you have the capacity to hold a job and to make relevant decisions to achieve objectives.

As a child, I felt competent when I was given responsibility for doing tasks on my own. When I was restricted and my parents did everything for me, I felt I was not able to make my own decisions

  • Fears: if you either fail to make the other person feel competent or neglect to ensure that they have the resources, tools, coaching or feedback they need, or if someone else fails to make you feel competent, they/you will suffer the fear of humiliations and embarrassment.


Your likeability is based on your ability to create an atmosphere in which I like myself. In many ways, it is not really about you, but about how you make me feel!

I find you likeable if I like how you behave and I feel comfortable in that atmosphere. When I like myself, I enjoy my own company; I feel good about who I am, and I feel that if people knew about me they would like me too. When I don’t like myself, I feel that no-one else will like me either and that they would find me unacceptable.

  • Fears: if you fail to like yourself and/or make others like themselves, they/you will suffer the fears of rejection and being disliked.