How to Deal with a Grumpy Partner

Posted: November 22, 2010 in EMS, Questions, Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dante and Virgil in Hell

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In the old days, we would have quarters to retreat to and many distractions from one-on-one interaction. Whether it be chores, fire inspections, drills and training, or just TV – at least one wasn’t forced to interact with their partner all day.  Times have changed and employers are getting more calls out of their medics through that great invention of System Status Management.  Consequently, we spend our entire shift locked in a cage and chained at the hip to our partners.  Depending on the situation, this can be a good thing, or a bad thing.

Assuming you draw a good partner, a friendship usually unfolds and going to work can  be quite pleasant.  However, given the opposite situation, this doesn’t always work out so well.  How does one deal with endless minutes, hours, and shifts with the partner from Hell?  Dismiss the fact that we all have bad days, and overlooking some minor personality defects – which we all possess, what do we do with people who are just plain hard to be around?

Over the years, I’ve used multiple techniques.  Here are a few:

  • Brute Force and Awkwardness.  As a young, testosterone-driven paramedic, I used my size, my mental acuity, and sheer brazen attitude to overpower others.   Back in the day, it was my way or the highway.
  • Passive Aggressive Sulking.  Being a good student of my own parents’ codependency, I learned at a very young age to withdraw into my own world when I didn’t get my own way.  I guess you could say that often I was that “grumpy partner.”
  • Avoidance.  Like I said in the intro, due to the fact that we had quarters, I was able to hide out in the bathroom, watch TV, take a nap, read, or work on hobbies.  The only time I saw my partner was when we ran calls.   This worked well.
  • Bribery.  Food and treats are the universal language.  Buying ice cream every shift seemed to soothe the savage beasts.
  • Transfer Request.  Eventually one has to acknowledge the lost cause and move on.

But times have changed and drastic situations call for drastic actions.

But times have changed and drastic situations call for drastic actions.  How does one handle a grumpy (angry, sad, depressed, unstable, [insert adjective here]) partner, when there are very few external solutions?  What do you do when you have no quarters?  What if your partner doesn’t eat ice cream, or like Starbucks, what now?  What if company policy, or company size, doesn’t afford frequent transfers?  What are you going to do?

I asked this question on Twitter recently, but I really didn’t like any of the answers that came back.  Most suggested I avoid the dilemma.  But I didn’t get to be a good paramedic by avoiding other people’s problems.  (eg; “I’m sorry you’re having suicidal ideations sir, but I can’t be bothered with your issues – I have my own problems.  Besides, I’m afraid I might get sucked into your chaos.“)  No, for me, avoiding conflict is the first step in breaking a relationship – when in reality, conflict dealt with well, is the first step in a lasting and solid relationship.

The question you may be asking me is “why should I bother?”

We are professionals, and we have training in mental health issues.  In fact, many of our patients have more baggage than the average grumpy medic.  We shouldn’t be anymore afraid to deal with our grumpy partner, than we are to RSI someone who is soon to crash from respiratory failure.  Here are some tips to consider before you ever start:

  • First consider your motives.  Is this for you, for your partner, for the agency, or for your patients?  If it’s all about you, I would suggest you rethink your frustration.  Maybe you’re half the problem.  Are you just being selfish?  Do you want everything to go your way all the time?  Maybe you just want a partner who conforms and enables your own codependent patterns.  However, if you think your partner’s attitude is affecting patient care, their own lives, or is detrimental to the agency or EMS profession, it wouldn’t hurt to explore why this person is grumpy.
  • Two, timing is everything.  Don’t react to poor behavior or attitudes.  Don’t react on scene, in a hospital, in a public place, or in front of others.  Don’t react at all – absorb and plan a strategy.  Wait for the right timing.  Maybe this is best handled off-duty – invite your partner out to breakfast, or a cup of coffee.
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  Ask questions, listen, seek to discover why they are grumpy.  Often, if you listen, you will hear why before you ever start asking.  Maybe they are struggling financially, or with their significant other.  It could be they are upset with changes in EMS regarding call volume, system utilization, or the increase in BS BLS calls.  Seek to understand what is going on.  If it is deep baggage, like childhood abuse, poor parenting, drug and/or alcohol abuse, career burnout, or marital strife, you should direct them to professional services – like your agency’s EAP.
  • Develop an attitude of empathy.  Understanding why another is struggling will enable us to overlook some of their issues.  Someone who is going through a relationship breakup may be unhappy for a while.  It’s good to give them some space to process that.
  • Draw the line at unacceptable behaviors. Drug and alcohol abuse are never acceptable.  If your partner is showing signs of addiction, you need to do whatever is necessary to get them some help – and protect your patients.  It is OK to tell your partner that you will not tolerate emotional outbursts, violent behavior, overly aggressive C-3 driving, or other unacceptable behaviors.  If they don’t respond to your request, talk to your superiors.
  • Don’t give advice without permission. Generally talking through the issues will release your partner to open up and share.  That process alone will reveal your attitude of concern.  As you share similar life events, from your own story, your partner will most likely learn to trust you and respect your relationship.  If they give you permission, you can offer a few words of advice – but be careful and don’t go too far.  Limit your advice to one or two bullet points.
  • Praise and affirmation.  Don’t be critical of your partner.  We are all just trying to survive the issues thrown our way.  More criticism, especially if they’re going through a rough spot, won’t help.  Finding ways to affirm your partner (and other co-workers, for that matter) will go a long ways to helping them over the barriers of personal growth.
  • Know when to walk away. It’s OK to walk away from a relationship that is damaging and hurtful.  If your partner is unwilling to grow, unwilling to leave grumpiness behind, or unwilling to seek solutions to their brokenness, then seek out a new partner and start over.  It is also OK to report illegal and abusive behavior to your superiors.

Years ago, early in my EMS career, I was going through a divorce.  I was depressed, angry, lonely, and broken.  I wasn’t sleeping well and would often walk around in a haze at the fire station.  Most crew members ignored me, but one of the firefighters seemed to think bullying me would get me to change.  Not only didn’t it help, but it almost drove me off the edge of sanity – due to my anger towards him.

At first I ignored him.  But as we continued to work together, his story began to reveal itself.

Once I worked with someone who was showing classic signs of career burnout.  He complained about every new policy, every request made by dispatch, and every patient who wasn’t in critical condition.  He denigrated those living on public assistance, management, and uncooperative ED staff.  He complained about the government, other drivers, and his marriage.  I never heard a positive word come out of his mouth.

At first I ignored him.  But as we continued to work together, his story began to reveal itself.  In turn, I shared my story – the ups, and the downs; the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Our relationship grew, but his grumpiness persisted.  After several months of working together, we were becoming good friends.  But I knew I had to deal with the grumpiness.  I didn’t want to – but for his sake, for his family’s sake, for the sake of his patients, and for the sake of his career – I knew I had to deal with this.

So, knowing my motives were more about him, I waited for some serious down time – posted at the corner of “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” for several hours, gives partners time to talk.  I began asking questions, seeking first to understand.  Within minutes, he began to talk, share, and self-analyze.  All I had to do for the next two hours was listen – actively; and reflect.  It was one of the best shifts I’ve had in ages – and our partnership is stronger than ever.

As we continued to work together, my partner grew and flourished

As we continued to work together, my partner grew and flourished.  In fact, he became one of the most positive medics at our agency.  He became a real leader and an inspiration to others.  It will be exciting to see where he takes the future!

The bottom line, and the question you may be asking me – if you’re still reading – is why should I bother? That’s a good question.  I have two reasons.  First, being a paramedic is a lifesaver’s job.  Why not save the life of those closest to you first – like your partner, other coworkers, or even your family?  Second, helping your partner to work through their stuff will help you have a more enjoyable workplace.  I mean – really – do you want to work with a grumpy partner?


  1. Great Post!
    Active listening, Open heart and compassion go a long way. Either with our patients, partners and ourselves, treat gently, most are carrying a heavy load.


  2. Johnny Gage says:

    Thank you Michelle! I like your three point summary too. Would that we be that way to everyone!

  3. […] (@johnnygage51) of the The Magic of 3:00am blog takes a look at dealing with a partner who is burned out. He shows us how to identify burn out and ways to handle a partner who needs a little help in How to Deal with a Grumpy Partner. […]

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