Dear Neil:  I read an article written by you about entitlement.  I am wondering if you have some specific, defined actions one can take in dealing with entitled people.  I work with two of them, no less, and I dread it, as any little thing that goes wrong can turn into a major problem.  When forced to work with people who act entitled, what is the best approach?

Dreading It in Longmont, Colorado

Dear Dreading It:  People who take a position of entitlement act contemptuous of others.  Superior.  They become offended when somebody objects to their behavior, and have a very difficult time apologizing when they make a mistake or act inappropriately.  They may easily blame, criticize, shame, humiliate or judge others—or demand that others meet their needs or live up to their standards—but are resistant to meet your needs or to live up to your standards, and they aren’t empathetic.  The act as if they have the right to do or say whatever they want, and you have no right to object.  So says psychotherapist John Mariner of the Relationship Resource Center in Denver.

Frequently this behavior comes from people who were shamed as children. Adults shamed as children frequently get angry and feel defensive when someone challenges or disagrees with them.  They suffer feelings of humiliation if forced to look at mistakes or imperfections, and they often feel judged by other people.

Author John Bradshaw argues that the core of feeling shamed comes down to my sense of inadequacy.  Feeling inadequate, in turn, makes me feel afraid that I will be discovered to not be good enough—and that I will never measure up.  Avoidance of negative judgment or criticism—or any suggestion that I’m less than perfect—therefore becomes the organizing principle of my life.  So I must cover up my mistakes at all costs, and one way of doing so is for me to judge, criticize or get angry at you.

So what can you do if you live or work with a person who frequently takes a strong entitlement position?  You can:

  • Use praise and admiration whenever you can.
  • Remove the criticism and blame from your comments.
  • Don’t take an adversarial position unless you have to.  Verbalize what you agree with, what makes sense or what you think is a good idea.  Then say what you want—but say it as tactfully as you can.
  • Ask questions that encourage teamwork:  “Where do you think we’re in agreement?” or “How can we put our heads together and come up with a solution that all of us can live with?” or “What could I do that would assist you?”
  • In cases where it’s not appropriate to agree with someone, at least acknowledge his/her emotions.  “So you’re feeling we should go in a different direction.  Is that correct?”  As soon as the other person feels heard and understood, tension and conflict are likely to be reduced.  By choosing to respond to a disagreement with a non-adversarial, empathetic approach, you can often transform the defensiveness, anger or hostility into teamwork and cooperation.

I also discuss this in a more recent column called People Who Act Entitled.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you can help them become what they are capable of being.” —Goethe

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