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Maybe I’m the Problem: Overcoming Life as a ‘Problem Person’

Originally published March 12, 2021

In John Maxwell’s “Winning with People”, the leadership guru goes through different principles to live by when it comes to working with people and building solid relationships in all aspects of life. One principle, in particular, is something he refers to as ‘The Bob Principle’.

“If Bob has problems with Bill, and Bob has problems with Fred, and Bob has problems with Sue, and Bob has problems with Jane, and Bob has problems with Sam, then Bob is usually the problem”.

I feel like we’ve all encountered a ‘Bob’ type and–to be honest–have fallen into being a Bob ourselves. There’s a special type of discomfort when I’m listening to a friend vent about her problems with someone…only to piece together that she is, in fact, the main part of the problem. Realistically speaking, it’s just not possible for us to have problems with this many people we interact with on a day-to-day basis unless there are problems within ourselves that we aren’t acknowledging.

What Makes Someone ‘That Person’?

Maxwell has a few key descriptions when it comes to recognizing someone who is typically the source of the problem. A typical ‘Bob’ has one or more of these attributes: Problem Carrier, Problem Finder, Problem Creator, and Problem Receiver.

When I think of a Problem Finder, I think of someone who is able to find the negative in every single thing. Their commitment to pessimism comes off annoying and makes it hard to be around them. And I’ve found that, oftentimes, this reaction can be rooted in forms of jealousy. Let’s say you tell your friend about a new car; instead of congratulating you, they might criticize the make and model or tell you all about how they “heard this make is terrible”.

Or maybe you’ve bought a new spacious house. The person who wants to find a problem might say something like “Oh, well this is definitely a lot of house you’ll have to clean”. After a while, you’ll probably just stop telling this person about anything. If they can turn a positive into a negative like that, I’d hate to say what they could do with a situation that’s already negative!

From a business perspective, Maxwell states that whenever someone from his staff comes with a problem, they should already be ready to present possible solutions to solve it. Anyone can find a problem, but it takes talent to solve said problem. You’ll know you’ll have a problem finder when they’re extremely talented in finding a problem but show little to no interest in actually solving it.

Next is the Problem Creator. We may know them as over-aggressive person who finds any excuse to pick a fight with others. We may also know them as someone who spreads gossip and false rumors about people they dislike, or even just for entertainment’s sake. It seems like wherever trouble is, they tend to play a role in it. I can’t say much about the problem creator as this is a person I don’t truly understand. I would like to think that there are underlying reasons why someone would find joy in sabotaging others.

But then there’s the Problem Receiver; unlike the previous examples, this is someone without malicious intent. A problem receiver is a recipient of other people’s problems, and they do nothing to stop them from doing so. To be frank, these people become emotional garbage dumps for others. Somehow, people are always coming to this person with their complaints, their gossip, their grumbling. Not to say that the Problem Receiver doesn’t participate in the activity of negative speech, but they’re likely not the ones instigating or starting it up. The only reasonable solution for the Problem Receiver is to make it known that they will not be accepting that from others anymore. People will continue to use you as an ’emotional dump’ until you draw the boundary and let it be known that it’s no longer okay to do so.

Dealing with ‘That Person’, Even When It’s You

There are a few key things we can do to block out the negativity that comes with the ‘Problem’ person. Personally, I find it very uncomfortable when someone tries to complain about another person to me, especially if it’s someone with whom I’m also connected.

One way to combat the negative person is to bring in more positive statements. If they have something negative and unfair to say about someone, try to mention a positive trait that you know about them. If it’s about a certain situation, try to drop a comment that looks on the brighter side of things. When my husband and I were dating and long distance, I would sometimes vent to him about the bad traffic that comes with living in a metropolitan area. He told me that the backed-up traffic could be God’s way of protecting me; I could have been in the accident that’s holding everyone up but thankfully I’m not. It’s a perspective that I had never thought of before, and it was also his subtle way of helping me be less negative, without complaining about me being negative.

Another thing we can do is encourage that negative person to find steps towards a resolution for an issue. In his text, Maxwell states that whenever someone is coming to you about a problem with another person that they have yet to discuss with that other person, they’re basically engaging in gossip. And, unfortunately, because you’re listening to them you are also engaging in gossip. However, to combat this you can help them brainstorm solutions. This can also be a good way to indicate whether or not the person actually cares about resolving an issue, or if they just want to complain about it. As I said before, gossip makes me pretty uncomfortable and I try to stay out of it.

A lot of times after someone has told me about something their partner, friend, etc. did I would just respond: “Okay, what was their reaction when you told them this?” or “Is that what you told them?” And if they respond with anything that suggests they haven’t talked to that person, I just wouldn’t engage in the conversation. It doesn’t make sense to discuss this issue without the person who is directly involved, so why should I fall into the gossip?

Lastly, a lot of issues we have with others can easily be resolved if we just learn to think before we speak. It’s a phrase that we say all the time, but when it comes down to it we don’t exercise this practice enough. Maxwell breaks the word ‘THINK’ into an acronym:

Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? So if what you want to say isn’t a yes to these things, then it’s best to keep that thought to yourself.

But as easy as it is to tell someone else to do these things, we still have to take responsibility for ourselves. There have been times when I’m actually the “Bob” in the situation, and I find it hard to believe that there is someone who hasn’t. It brings us to question what exactly can we do to keep ourselves in check. It’s all about introspection. We have to be willing to look ourselves in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. Maxwell even supplies a set of questions we can ask ourselves on the matter. Questions like: Do people often rub me the wrong way? Do bad things just “naturally” happen to me? Do I always have a way of saying the wrong thing? Do I experience conflict almost every day?

Honestly, there was a time when I qualified for almost all of these questions. I’ve struggled with a bad attitude, I always claimed to “hate people”, and there are times I’ve hurt people by being thoughtless with my words. I always thought bad things were happening to me but, truthfully, I was bringing problems to myself. While it’s nice that I wasn’t really the gossiping type, I still had a lot to work on when it came to how I viewed people.

But then I started learning that how we view others is a direct correlation with how we view ourselves. I wasn’t willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt because I didn’t give myself the benefit of the doubt. I had negative, dark thoughts so I assumed everyone was truly negative and dark (I just thought they were better at hiding it). I assumed the worst in people because I often saw the worst in myself. Over time I’ve been learning to correct these character flaws, but that’s more of an ongoing thing that I need to be conscious about.

While I can’t say we can fix every relationship we’ve ever had with this principle, in my experience, I find that it’s been doing wonders as I put it into practice with my current relationships. I’m very glad that I’ve been extended grace in this area. Even if we find ourselves being the ‘problem person’, the good thing is that we don’t have to be that person forever if we’re willing to correct it.



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