Dealing with Difficult People
We all have occasional run-ins with the disagreeable and the unreasonable. But what if it’s become a chronic facet of life? Here are some thoughts on how to handle your relationships (and yourself)!
1) Start with some self-reflection.
If everyone around you seems difficult/unreasonable, consider whether it’s actually your expectations that are unreasonable. Or you might be under significant stress, which means that you have lower tolerance for other people. In that case, you might be conveying irritability or some other emotion that is rubbing people wrong and influencing the interactions in a negative way. Some stress management might be in order.
But if you find that generally, you get along well with people, with one or two notable exceptions, then likely it’s them, and not you. In which case…
2) Marshall support from others.
It’s good to have a team behind you. It will increase your confidence going into the encounters with the difficult person (D.P., as I’ll call him or her for the remainder of this post.) Also, you’ll be able to bounce ideas off your support team as to how to handle yourself during those encounters.
Maybe your friends and family also have to deal with the D.P., and could have some valuable suggestions as to what’s worked for them in similar situations. No need to reinvent the wheel if you can draw on what’s already been successful.
3) Notice patterns.
The D.P. will often push the same buttons repeatedly, and you will find yourself responding in repetitive ways. So identifying those buttons and your reactions ahead of time can help you to stay calm in the moment.
You might also want to consider what the D.P. is trying to gain in the interactions. It’s possible that the D.P. is just a person who is very socially inept. There’s a great mental health definition of manipulation: Manipulation is what someone does when he/she doesn’t know how to get needs met any other way. By thinking of it this way, you may develop more compassion for the D.P., which can be useful to draw on.
It also allows you to brainstorm alternate responses you could have that would meet those needs for the D.P. For example, the D.P. might be incredibly insecure, and really want reassurance. If you can see through the poor behavior and provide this, it can short-circuit the whole negative cycle.
4) Rehearse alternate responses that delineate your boundaries clearly (“I’m not okay with this”, “I’d appreciate if you…”, “I feel demeaned when you…”, “I’d prefer…”, “Could we try this instead and see how it goes?”)
I do this in session sometimes with clients. You might want to try it with a friend or loved one. It can be incredibly helpful to actually say alternate responses out loud. They seem to somehow imprint more and then they’ll come out more naturally in the moment, when you’re under more stress and duress.
Because that’s the thing: Dealing with a D.P. is often a pressure situation. You know you’ve had issues in the past and so you’re primed for them to repeat. But knowing that you’re going to stop feeding into the negative cycle, that you have the option to do something different, can be empowering.
5) Consider whether you need to engage with the D.P. at all.
Sometimes we forget that we have the power to end a destructive relationship. One of the tools at your disposal might be an ultimatum: That the D.P. changes, or you can’t be a part of their lives anymore. You’d want to present this as a mental health decision for you, because it really is. Breathing in all that toxicity, experiencing all that stress–it takes a toll, emotionally and sometimes physically.
Know that you have the right to disengage from any interaction that feels unproductive, and from any relationship that’s become destructive. Remember to use your support team (which includes me!)
Brown, H. (2014). Dealing with Difficult People. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 7, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bonding-time/2014/08/dealing-with-difficult-people/