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The difficult people who we encounter can be our greatest teachers.”
Eileen Anglin

We have all met them and probably, at certain times, are one of them. Who are they? “They” are all those “difficult” or “irritating” and “annoying” people that we deal with on a day to day basis. Some of them we have to work with, others we have to live with. Some of them wait for us to come into the grocery store, the doctor’s office or anywhere where we need to be around people just so that they can annoy us (we think). Some of these people drive ahead of us at a snail’s pace on the highway or cut in front of us from the left at a red light (yeah, that has actually happened to me).

We may actually start to believe that their whole point in life is to make our life miserable and frustrating. Perhaps we go to work each day and have to interact with a co-worker who is a bully, or a complainer. Maybe we have to deal with negative and rude clients all day who will complain no matter how nice we are to them. Or what about that colleague who “knows everything” and will not listen to anyone if they dare to question anything? Maybe it is someone we live with who is combative or passive-aggressive. So what do we do?

Look In the Mirror First

Rule #1 for dealing with difficult people is to not be one yourself. We can’t go around calling everyone a black kettle if we are also a black kettle. So first things first, let’s examine our own motives and attitudes.  How can we expect others to “behave” if we can’t control our own behavior and attitudes? As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are”.  We are there with all our baggage, good, bad and ugly.

We can’t deny that we are all difficult people from time to time. Sometimes we are prima donnas, wanting to have things our way. Sometimes we are tyrants, bossing everyone around. At other times we may be having pity parties and lamenting our misfortune and blaming everyone else. Somedays we are more difficult than on other days. Under the right circumstances, we all have the potential to be a difficult person. So first and foremost, we need to get some control over the difficult person inside ourselves.

Understand What Is Happening

Everyone is difficult at times and sometimes we are all more irritated by others than at other times. It is not always that others are annoying. Sometimes it has to do with what is going on in our own lives. Sometimes we project onto others what we are going through and believe that their whole purpose is to make things difficult for us. Also, we need to remember that opposition is normal and healthy, and some opposition is exactly what we need to correct our own errors. An opposition may simply serve as a mirror to our own attitudes and behavior.

The more we stand for something, the more we pursue goals and aspire to higher things, the more opposition we will have. If we stand for nothing and do nothing, we won’t have too much opposition. The “haters” come out when there is something to oppose. Where there is a confrontation, there will be opposition. Those who “tow the line”, follow all the rules, say nothing and do less won’t find themselves too often in a situation of being opposed. The “haters” will come in different categories. Some will be critics and some will be tyrants. Some will be micromanagers and others will be chronic victims.

We can’t please everyone and we shouldn’t even try. Trying to please everyone just to “be nice” or buy “peace” is a fast route to unhappiness. Sometimes we must confront behavior and attitudes in a firm but loving way, but not everyone will be receptive. We need to accept that some people are not going to change unless they want to change. We don’t have to take any responsibility for other people and it is not our responsibility to make them happy – that is their job!

Steps We Can Take for a Peace Treaty

1. Focus

Focus on what the problem is rather than what emotions are saying. Don’t overact or dramatize. Conflict disappears when one person chooses not to participate anymore. Escalating the issue, the discussion or whatever the situation becomes just a battle of the wills and emotions. It becomes a power game more than anything else. If we are in a situation where we are being dragged down by emotional arguments, we do not have to get in and “wrestle with the pigs”, so to speak. They will always be better at us in dragging us into the mud. Remember that a typical reaction of a “distance” person is that they tend to overreact.

The most difficult thing in any negotiation, almost, is to make sure that you strip it of the emotions and deal with the facts – Howard Baker

2. Pause, Listen and Relax.

It sounds hard to do, doesn’t it? Yet by doing these three things we are giving ourselves space and time to reflect on what is going on. Kevin Cashman wrote a book called The Pause Principle, in which he calls the Pauseone of the most powerful tools in the human world. He said:

Pause, the natural capability to step back in order to move forward with greater clarity, momentum and impact, holds the creative power to reframe and refresh how we see ourselves and our relationships, our  challenges, our capacities, our organizations and missions within a larger context”.

3. Practice Empathy

Where pausing helps us to understand the situation, empathy helps us to understand the person in front of us and put them in the proper perspective. Steven Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, gave, as one of the 7 habits: ” seek first to understand and then seek to be understood”. Most (but not all) people’s problems are the result of a lack of empathy. People want to know how much we care before they will open up.

4. Seek to Understand

Seeking to understand starts by striving to understand where the other person is coming from. What are his needs and desires? What makes him tick? Try to see things through his eyes.  See him as important, just as you want to be seen.  David J. Schwartz, Ph.D. says in The Magic of Thinking Big:

When you meet another person, make it a policy to think ” we are just two important people sitting down to discuss something of mutual interest and benefit”.

5. Be Opened-minded and Think Creatively

The ability to be open-minded is really why pausing is so helpful. When we pause ie: stop talking (or yelling, if that is the case), we can have time to think about possible solutions that would benefit both. It is also an opportunity to open our ideas to other ways of thinking or seeing things. Being open-minded can be beneficial in pointing us back to our share in the responsibility in the conflict.

6. Find  Common Ground

This point goes along with the point above: being open-minded and creative. Are there any points that we can agree on? Certainly, there must be areas where we can find some commonality. All relationships, difficult or not, are a “give and take”. What can we give to the relationship? What can we offer them? Maybe it might be that we simply agree on a time to sit down and discuss the problems at a mutually convenient time. Maybe it means taking the first step to apologize for our part in any conflict  There is surely some area we can agree on.

An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything – Lynn Johnston

7. Address Problems Straight Up

We need to be courageous and confront any problems while they are still small.  It is easier to uproot an oak tree while it is still a sapling than it is to chainsaw down a 200-year-old oak tree. Confront the problem and not the person. Many people ( I have been one of them) resort to other ways of dealing with problems. Sometimes they let them fester and blister by pretending they don’t exist. Other people take a passive-aggressive approach to relational problems; they triangulate to discuss (gossip) people behind their backs.

What Are Some Difficult Behaviors?

  • Dishonesty, lying or having weak character /lack of courage and integrity

  • Being hard-headed, combative and objectional

  • Being passive-aggressive, triangulation and gossiping

  • Complaining, generally negative attitude

  • A poser, a fake, an impostor – we don’t even know who they really are

  • Self-centeredness, arrogance, puffed up

  • Being hurtful, mean-spirited

  • Being unpredictable and unreliable

  • Bully, prone to temper tantrums (yes, adults have them too), silent treatment

Be Careful! Not All Difficult People Are Reasonable

Even when our heart is in the right place and we want to do what is right to resolve conflicts and smooth relations with ‘difficult” people, we need to be aware that not everyone thinks reasonably. Not everyone has a desire to get along or is even able to function reasonably. Consider the following:

  • 1% of the general population are psychopaths
    Says Dr. Robert Hare, Criminal psychology researcher, Creator of the PCL-R

  • 4% of Americans are sociopaths

    According to Harvard psychologist Martha Stout in her book, “The Sociopath Next Door,”  one out of every 25 people in America is a sociopath. She defines sociopath as a person with no conscience.

  • 5-15% of Americans are Almost psychopaths
    Dr. Ronald Schouten, Associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says in his book”Almost a Psychopath

These are the people that, no matter how hard you try or how you bend over backward to work things out and see if you can work together, simply will not change at all. In fact, if you confront them or “catch” them red-handed, they will double down, even more, to come against you. In addition to these categories, we can also add all those people who have serious issues going on such as addictions, alcoholism dependence, anger issues and much more. We can not always assume that good communication skills will work on everyone.

Don’t Engage in Written Battles

Whatever the conflict, problem, it is inadvisable to battle it out through written media such as texting, email or even via voicemail. In addition to having everything that you have written on a permanent record for consultation, it is virtually impossible to read and interpret the tone in which the messages were written. Written messages are a breeding ground for misunderstandings and escalation of emotions behind the screen as well as potential grounds for legal accusations. Don’t write poisonous emails or texts; they will never be interpreted exactly as you intended and probably will do more harm than good.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen – Winston Churchhill

Have the Courage to Confront

Whether in business or personal relationships, confrontation is necessary and often helpful, if done in the right way with a spirit of unity. Confrontation addresses the problem and not the person. It may mean confronting attitudes, behaviors or situations, but any negative situation must be dealt with fairly, and rapidly so that it does not get out of hand. Small problems are easier to deal with than larger ones, but small problems can become larger or more destructive if they are ignored or avoided. Poison is poison no matter what the amount. a small bit of arsenic will affect and poison the whole cake.

People are watching us. whether we are a parent, a teacher, a pastor or a manager, people watch what we do. They know when fair is fair and right is right. When we fail to call a spade a spade and avoid confronting poisonous behavior or attitudes everyone loses. They lose respect for us and experience loss in whatever organization they are in.

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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, living a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. You can connect with her through