How To Deal With The Difficult People In Your Life, According To Psychologists

by | Nov 26, 2019 | Life

You know that phrase, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I’m willing to bet that whoever first uttered that doesn’t have an uncle who always seems to walk into family functions ready for a fight or has never worked with someone who you’re 99-percent sure was the inspiration for Angela from The Office. Dealing with difficult people (or, as my grandmother would fondly call them: “those who really try your patience”) is just something you have to do.

But when it comes to your actual life — not just laughing at a character’s antics on a sitcom — interacting, let alone sustaining a relationship, with certain people can seem pretty much impossible. After all, they’re already adding an extra level of dread and stress to your day-to-day life by merely, um, existing. (You know it’s true.)

While I can’t promise that you’ll never have to work with someone who grinds your gears again, I can promise that there are strategies you can use to make interactions with these people a little smoother. (Thank G, because your tight smile isn’t really fooling anyone, okay?)

Here are nine not-so-difficult ways to deal with difficult people, according to psychologists.

1. Understand that it’s probably not about you.

Despite what you might’ve been told about villains in superhero movies, there is no one root cause of all difficult behaviours. They could come from the environment in which a person was raised, or they could be part of an individual’s ingrained personality, or even a combination of both. Or they could come from something totally different.

“Many ‘difficult’ people are aware of how they impact others, but think that their behaviours are a necessary way to cope or get ahead in the world,” says Dr Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Maryland. “Others have no idea how they appear to others.” (Fun.)

2. But let’s be real: In some cases, it might be about you.

Dr Patricia Thompson, a corporate psychologist and author of The Consummate Leader: a Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others…and in Yourself, recommends taking a step back and starting with some inner reflection because, she notes, “whenever you’re having interpersonal difficulties, there are always two people involved.”

Ask yourself if there’s anything you could be doing that’s contributing to the unsavoury sitch and if this person acts this way with everyone or just with you. The answers will help you figure out whether this person’s overall behaviour naturally leans to the more difficult, or if there is something more specific at play in your relationship.

READ MORE: How To Bounce Back From A Fight With Your Partner, And End Up Closer

3. Make a list of their nasty comments.

Does this mean you should go all reverse Burn Book on them? Nope. Instead, the reason why Dr Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist and author of Prescriptions Without Pills, recommends trying this technique is that there’s something about seeing every comment in a list that makes it easier to dismiss such ideas.

In fact, it may even lead to you recognizing how these comments are really about the other person’s own insecurities and behaviours. (If you want to use fancier lingo, this is what psychologists call “projection.”) Heitler says the goal of this strategy is to make those nasty darts being thrown at you take a U-turn in their trajectory.

Not only that, but all three experts agree that an essential part of trying to deal with a so-called difficult person is not to take negative comments personally. Since this is usually easier said than done, laying everything out in one place can help put things into perspective.

4. Keep calm and carry on.

When someone is insulting you, it can be difficult to resist the urge to throw a couple zingers right back at them. But practice with me now: **Deep inhale. Deep exhale.** Don’t you feel more relaxed already? Thompson explains that staying calm in these less-than-ideal interactions will help you respond from a grounded place, as opposed to an emotionally charged one.

“You have to breathe and keep your body under control,” she advises. “When we get stressed, very often, that’s when we do the things that we wish we hadn’t done later.”

5. It’s totally okay to walk away.

If you enter into a conversation and, right off the bat, the other person is rude or combative, removing yourself from the situation is always an option (yes, really!). Heitler calls this “using your legs, not your mouth.” (Clever, huh?)

But, she adds, if this is a boss, friend, or someone whom you will interact with on a regular basis, take the time later to explain why you left. It’s okay to let someone know that you don’t respond well to such behaviours, as long as you’re professional and respectful about it.

6. Try agreeing and adding.

You know those times when it feels like you’re just talking to a wall? In those head-bangingly-frustrating situations, Heitler recommends a strategy she calls “agree and add.” Whatever the person says, begin your response with something they said that you can agree with. (C’mon, there’s gotta be at least one thing…)

Then, add on the additional piece of information that you’re trying to convey to that person. For example, let’s say the difficult person is your roommate (so sorry for you): “I agree that the heat could be working better, but I also think investing in thicker shades could be a cheaper way to keep the place warm.”

Best-case scenario, little by little, you may actually start to see a change in the pattern of conversation—and that’s progress.

7. Tap into your empathetic side.

Real talk: You’ll never be able to control another person’s behaviour. What you can control? How you react to their behaviour. That’s where empathy comes in. Rodman says it’s important to recognize that there are reasons a toxic person acts the way they do.

And if you’re having trouble cultivating those particular feelings for, let’s say, your curmudgeonly coworker, think about two things. One: The person as a child being treated by their parents in the same way. Two: Picture how sad this person must be if they treat others like this.

Rodman believes that it’s hard not to at least feel a twinge of empathy after trying those two thought experiments. “You can always take the high road,” she adds. “You can choose to be kind and ethical, even in the face of rude or nasty behaviour.” (Please do.)

8. But most important, protect yourself and your well-being.

Boundaries are essential in order to create healthy relationships and live a happy life (sounds cliché, but that is what you want, right?). In a relationship with unhealthy boundaries, your own wants and needs get lost.

Thompson says creating boundaries is especially important when someone you don’t want to cut out of your life entirely does have some difficult behaviours. For example, if one of your parents tends to be overly critical, lay out those topics that you don’t want to discuss with them. But, be respectful, of course.

9. Recognize that you might be the difficult person.

Consider this a little bit of tough love: If a lot of your interpersonal relationships are hostile, the difficult person in those exchanges may actually be…you. Think this is the case? Thompson suggests asking for feedback, so long as you feel comfortable doing so. Ask friends if there’s something you’re doing that leads to difficulties in relationships. But, she notes, don’t argue or try to explain away your issues — or else you’ll never get feedback again.

Otherwise, Thompsons says you can go over your interactions internally. Ask yourself if there was something about a particular moment that triggered you. Ya never know what emotional baggage an honest answer can uncover. These kinds of questions might suck to ask yourself at first, but they may just make other things in your life less, well, difficult.

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