Darren and William, who both run small East Anglian companies, are hunched together in a corner of the Belstead Brook Manor hotel, Ipswich, surreptitiously inhaling tobacco in the style of guilty schoolboys; to the relationship- oriented experts who run such seminars, of course, smoking in the workplace is a politically incorrect evil to rank alongside sexism and racism.
But the greatest of all evils is awkwardism. Awkwardism is the vile, anti-social ideology of Difficult People. You know the types. All offices have them. People who put you down (Autocratic Dictators), smear you behind your back (Back Stabbers), sulk rather than air a problem (Tight Lips), know it all (Critical Advice Givers), agree to things they may not support later (Soothing Delayers), produce an endless list of complaints (Fault Finders) and always think things are going to get worse - like Private "We're doomed!" Fraser from Dad's Army (Downers).
If Darren had the seven deadly stereotypes working for him, he half jokes, "I'd have a very effective collective team." He is whispering because Elizabeth Paddon, the shoulder-padded - and stunningly self-assured - seminar leader, is within earshot. Stubbing out his ciggie, he explains his dilemma to William. If he complains about coughing up a quid for the coffee, he may be cast in the role of Critical Advice Giver or Fault Finder. Or, worse still, Downer - "the chronically negative Fault Finder".
Yet if he keeps his anger in and represses his real emotions, he may be accused of being a Tight Lip. He decides to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. "I mean, pounds 59 for the whole day is quite a reasonable fee when you think about it. And you can get a refill for nothing."
"These sort of American conferences are coming over here more and more," William points out. "It's a worldwide market now, I suppose."
Indeed, the Kansas-based Pryor Resources, set up in 1970 to provide "motivational seminars" for businessmen and women, is coming to a city near you, teaching emotional control, conflict management and how to deliver exceptional customer service.
Ms Paddon, a "self-made", fortysomething Canadian woman who drives the "How to Handle Difficult People" course, appears keen to teach English as an American language.
In an odd mixture of home truths and jargon, she urges her students to "call the behaviour" of Back Stabbers (bring their actions out into the open) and points out the "weak ego structures" of Autocratic Dictators. People use manipulative behaviour, she notes, "because they have not had an opportunity to learn and practise effective communication skills". And here was I thinking they were just nasty, arrogant so-and-sos.
Ken, a training and enterprise board officer from Peterborough, laps up all these North Americanisms. "I really admire them," he says. "They extend your vocabulary."
Darren is more sceptical. "Mind you," he smiles, "I wish I'd known about these techniques when I was living with my ex-wife." He checks his watch and looks worried - Elizabeth told everyone to be back in the Willow Suite at "five after eleven".
Standing in front of a giant overhead projector and a table crammed with "How To" videos, books and cassettes, Elizabeth senses some unease over terminology. "If I use a phrase or combination of words you don't understand, please say, `Elizabeth, I don't know what it means.' I'm here to serve."
She has also picked up bad vibes on the coffee issue, but, as if to stress her un-American credentials, she declares herself a tea drinker. "I feel bad about you all queueing and paying for coffee but it's outside my sphere of influence. If I had a great big tea kettle and could make you all tea, I would. I just wanted to say that. I think it's important."
Elizabeth is a very relationship-oriented person, but this does not mean she lets people get away with things. She believes in being assertive and is a devoted follower of Stephen Covey, whose best-selling blockbuster The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is, apparently, used by millions to enhance leadership and productivity.
She spends a lot of time in her car listening to President Clinton's favourite management guru - "the American Socrates and a wonderful human being" - with the aim of teaching and bettering herself. ("By the way," she reminds us, "you can buy Dr Covey's and two other programmes for only pounds 199.95.")
One of Covey's habits can be summed up as "Think win/win". In interpersonal situations, apparently, you should be positive and think you are going to come out on top. Do not allow another person to rob you of one minute of your enjoyment of life. "People are afraid to say `no', but it's better in the long run, which is where assertiveness training comes in. Has anyone here done assertiveness training?"
A wag at the back shouts "No".
"Any questions?" continues Elizabeth. A female librarian coughs nervously and raises her hand. "Er, we've all got natural mineral water bottles but no glasses. Do you think the hotel could, er, organise some glasses for us?" Elizabeth rushes off to find some glasses. When a waiter eventually arrives, he leaves them on a side table. "Excuse me, sir," says Elizabeth. "Would you want people to get the glasses, or could you take them around?" He takes them around.
This is the way to do it; sharp but diplomatic, an interaction based on mutual respect.
But life's not really like that, I protest, touching base with Elizabeth during the lunch break. We're not all rational, objective human beings, endlessly evaluating our interpersonal relationships, getting in touch with our feelings and thinking from a detached perspective. If a boss comes over as a cross between Hitler and Attila the Hun, even the most saintly of underlings will find it hard to "show empathy, not resentment" and appreciate that "many times, difficult people are doing the best they can".
Elizabeth smiles sweetly. Nobody's 100 per cent perfect, she agrees, but what distinguishes us from the other animals is our ability to pause, breathe and think.
"Your boss is probably acting as an Autocratic Dictator because he has a weak ego structure. His self-image is on the line. Talk it through."
But won't he sack you if you tell him he has a weak ego?
"I would not tell anyone that," she chuckles. "I'd keep it in my hip pocket and say: `OK, this is what I'm perceiving; this is what I'm sensing. How do I work with that?' "
She spies some customers eyeing up the "How to Manage Multiple Projects, Meet Deadlines & Achieve Objectives" and "How to Build High Self-Esteem" videos and, with a "Now I need to kind of wrap this up", politely extracts herself from a potentially awkward interaction.
Fred Pryor Seminars charge pounds 59 for the How to Handle Difficult People seminar and up to pounds 149 for other one-day courses. For details write to Pryor Resources, 2000 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Shawnee Mission, Kansas 66205, or call Amy Robinson, marketing manager (0800 892617, extension 664).
They stay in control by putting others down, rule from a command post, are quick to anger and often unpredictable.
How to handle an AD: don't attack back - stand up for yourself and your ideas. Don't try and win your point when the AD is loud, furious and out of control. Do something to get them to listen to you.
They attack from behind your back, stab you with putdowns, criticism and false rumours then pretend they have done nothing.
How to handle a BS: catch them in the act. Don't allow them to think they have got away with their attack. Don't challenge them in public. Allow them a way to save face and then confront them in private. Be ready for their "denial response".
They won't talk or offer information when you try to hold a discussion with them. They answer questions with a single word and don't let you know why they're being so quiet, even if you ask.
How to handle a TL: ask questions that the TL can't easily answer with a "yes" or "no". Use an open, waiting expression that demonstrates you will continue to wait until you get an answer.
Critical Advice Giver
They present their opinions as if they know all there is to know about a subject and speak with a tone of condescension and aloofness.
How to handle a CAG: position your counter points in the form of questions and present alternatives in the form of related but not oppositional ideas. The AG's ego is wrapped up in what he or she is saying. Make sure you paraphrase it back.
They hate committing themselves when faced with difficult decisions and tend to be agreeable without moving ahead.
How to handle a SD: make it easy for them to disagree or bring up problems they see. Help them identify priorities when they get bogged down in the decision process.
They tend to criticise everything around them and use a tone of voice that implies someone else is always at fault.
How to handle a FF: find opportunities to confront them privately, especially when their criticisms are destroying a relationship. Consistently ask them pointed, solution-oriented questions.
They continually think that things are going to get even worse and come up with lists of reasons why something won't work. Their extreme negativism keeps them from being reasonable or hearing rational, positive solutions.
How to handle a Downer: let what they say go in one ear and out the other. Learn to restate the case for the record and for your own mental health.