How to Deal with Difficult People in Your Life

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“Some people find fault like there’s a reward for it.”

–Zig Ziglar

Let’s face it: Some people are a heck of a lot harder to deal with than others. If you’re nice, a people-pleaser, or just plain easygoing, those types of people probably have swarmed to you like a bee to a hive. That’s because difficult people don’t hang out with other difficult people; it would be like placing two pit bulls in a small cage. When I say difficult people, I’m talking about those who seem to always have something to complain about, are usually grumpy, are draining instead of uplifting, and always seem to make everything about them. You know who I’m talking about. In fact, you’re probably picturing that person now. A good example is the classic person who sends everything back at a restaurant or who suddenly has a hard time with math when it comes time to split the bill. People like those tend to be attracted to the people pleasers of the world and oh boy, is that a disaster for those people pleasers. Because guess what? Difficult people can never be pleased. They aren’t wired that way. It’s their job to see what’s going wrong instead of what’s working. And that can leave a people pleaser feeling, confused, worthless, and unsatisfied when the truth is, the dissatisfaction has nothing to do with them.

So what are we to do when faced with difficult people in our lives? Maybe it’s a family member, friend, or co-worker that you can’t simply rid from your life. When you believe you’ve tried your best to get along with a difficult person, thinking that person may be in your life forever can feel suffocating. You might have even convinced yourself to continue trying to please that person, shutting your mouth, and going with the flow—that is until they push you to the edge. Give it enough time, and that will likely happen to even the kindest and calmest of people. Because on some level, the difficult person might like the conflict, enjoy getting a rise out of people, or want to test how far they can go until you break.

In the book How to Deal with Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life, the author Gill Hasson offers several helpful approaches to this problem. She starts off by saying that difficult people are everywhere. A difficult person is someone who constantly seems upsets and finds ways to upset you. Her main point is that you can’t change someone else’s behavior, but you can change how you respond to it.

To quickly summarize, the book is divided into three parts. Part one provides the basics of how to deal with the two types of difficult people, which are those who are openly hostile and aggressive and those who are passively aggressive. How you respond depends on who it is, why they are being difficult, when they are being difficult, and how you are feeling. You can respond by being submissive, indirectly confrontational, and/or directly confrontational. The author explains that you should confront one situation at a time, keeping a “beginner’s mind,” which means not judging the person from your past experiences. A major part of approaching someone is learning how to listen. Truly hearing another involves something called active listening, which involves repeating, summarizing and paraphrasing. Instead of coming up with extravagant avoidance techniques or snappy comebacks, you can change your relationship dynamics with these fun takers. Try some of the following strategies to stop being emotionally drained by difficult people, once and for all.

1. Be assertive—identify and explain the problem
2. Say how you feel—use “I” not “you.”
3. Acknowledge your part in the situation.
4. Say what you will and won’t do.
5. Stand your ground.
6. Negotiate and compromise.
7. Identify solutions and consequences.
8. Keep calm and rehearse what you will say and do.

Acknowledge Your Part in The Situation

“You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them”

– Rick Kirschner

There is a saying that goes, “People who irritate us usually have something to show us about ourselves.” So you may want to ask yourself: What is this person bringing out in me that I don’t want to see? For example, when you’re around a person who’s always irresponsible, you might remember times when you’ve been irresponsible or have had to be more responsible to make up for another person’s under-functioning — which may not be some of your favorite characteristics.

If it’s family, a good friend or partner, think, too, about your own behavior in the relationship. Have you contributed to the situation by saying yes instead of no too many times? Did you not let them know early on that something was bothering you? “If you don’t look at your own actions, you end up making the other person 100% of the problem,” explains Susan Fee, author of Dealing with Difficult People: 83 Ways to Stay Calm, Composed, and in Control.

Making the Big Decisions

With all this said, you now need to decide whether to confront the difficult people in your life. It’s recommended that if the difficult person in question is a good friend, partner, or close family member, you should talk things over, addressing the situation directly. It’s probably not worth discussing if the person is an acquaintance or distant family member whom you only see every once in a while. You can also avoid the conversation altogether if you know for sure that the person won’t get it, or if you believe that no matter what you say, it will be taken the wrong way.

Before you decide to confront someone, you should prepare yourself. Ask yourself this question: “In what ways do I want this person’s behavior to change?” Then ask, “Over time, what am I expecting from this relationship?” It’s important to set goals before you decide to speak to a person about what things you’d like to see change.

If you think the person will react negatively, try to plan your response in advance. For example, will you simply walk away? Say that you’ll talk later when he/she is less upset? Take deep breaths until she/he relaxes?”

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, you have to be the one to set boundaries, express yourself, and continue to speak up about what’s okay and not okay for you. You also need to navigate who you can actually communicate your thoughts with and who simply won’t understand, no matter what. Either way, some people just aren’t easy, and no matter what you do, your relationship with that person will always seem complicated. In that case, I leave you with this bit of wisdom: Some people you just have to try to love from a distance.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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