5 Ways to Deal With Difficult People

5 Ways to Deal With Difficult People


Feeling like you might throttle someone? Try these tactics instead.

Ah, difficult people. There are passive aggressives—the ones who “forget” and put pork in a vegetarian’s dinner. Then there are the grumpy misanthropes, the abusive yellers, the self-centered narcissists, the Debbie Downers, or Woe-Me-ers. If we’re being honest, we are all difficult in our own smaller ways, with our human foibles and sometimes prickly personal preferences. But assuming you’ve encountered someone actually difficult, with a capital D, and that it’s stressing you out. For this week’s Healthy Habit, let’s look at Five Ways to Deal with Difficult People.

1. Compassion, compassion, compassion. “If someone is acting unreasonably, they are likely feeling some sort of vulnerability or fear,” writes Barbara Markway, PhD, for Psychology Today. Just reading those words lowered my blood pressure. And once a difficult person feels at least acknowledged—when you aren’t shutting down from them to begin with—you can start your communication process off on a better foot.

2. “I should probably let you know …” I found this phrase in the writings of Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, aka the “Savvy Psychologist,” and love it. She suggests framing it as a way of giving direct feedback, she says, rather than being confrontational—perfect for those of us who are conflict-averse. For example, “I should probably let you know that I don’t answer work calls on my private cell phone,” rather than fuming that a coworker keeps calling you on a Saturday.

3. Repeat their words, slowly, back. This tactic is so awesome. I wish I could remember to use it more often, instead of getting flustered. Here’s an example. A sexist coworker tells a middle-aged (and middle management) woman, when she asks him for help bringing some coffees into the conference room for a presentation, “I don’t fetch coffees like some of you girls.” Now, she can a) pour the coffee on his head, or b) calmly look him in the eye and say in an even tone, “Did you just say, ‘I don’t fetch coffees like some of you girls?’” And let it hang there in the air. Sometimes, simply hearing the words back at a person makes them realize they need to change course on a behavior.

4. Hold your tongue. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s a natural tranquilizing technique, and who doesn’t need that when dealing with a Class A jerk? Here’s how to do it: Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth and breathe in while counting to four. Hold your breath for seven seconds, then blow out for an eight count. Weil claims it’s a powerful anti-anxiety technique.

5. Limit exposure. Like second-hand smoke or too much pollen on a spring day, difficult people are bad for your health. Act accordingly by adjusting how much time you spend in the presence of this person, if at all possible. Or modify the time you spend with them. Let’s say your dad is a terrible complainer. Take him to a movie. That way, you’re still seeing him and hanging out, but not having to hear all about his latest gripes about his neighbor’s hedge.

    Need more? Try 14 Affirmations For When You’re Around Someone Negative.

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