Dealing with difficult people

All of us have people in our lives who are difficult to deal with for one reason or another. Finding ways to effectively manage situations that arise with such individuals can be difficult. In general, people like to avoid conflict and keep life as smooth-sailing as possible. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to think relationships will always be free from unpleasantness. On the plus side, there are many strategies you can adopt  to increase the chances of improving life for yourself. Sometimes, you can also improve life for the other person as well (even if they don't shower you with appreciation at the time!).

Suggestions List

It's a bit tricky to talk about suggestions on this topic in general terms, purely doe to the huge range of situations that people can find themselves in. However, I've listed some options for you that I think can be helpful across many scenarios. With any luck, this information will send you on the road to interpersonal bliss, harmony and overall good times....

  • You should start by identifying what it is about the person's behaviour that you find most difficult, and why this creates problems for you. For instance, you may receive 10 calls per day from your partner and this is a problem because it hinders your ability to finish day-to-day tasks. Here you are being clear about the problem behaviour (being called) and the difficulties this causes (can't get through my to-do list).


  • Think about how much of a problem is actually being caused by the person's behaviour. You want to avoid a case of 'sweating the small stuff' (I promise to never use that phrase again), but If the person's behaviour is serious disrupting day-to-day life and/or there are major personal consequences for you (e.g., being upset on a regular basis, damaging other important relationships, financial problems, etc) then this is usually a good indicator that the issue is serious enough to warrant attention. 


  • On a related note, watch out for unrealistic expectations/thoughts you're having that might be contributing to the situation. For example, thoughts such as 'All people should agree with me' and 'There should NEVER be conflict in my life' are likely to cause problems as much as the behaviour of other people.


  • Think about the potential advantages and disadvantages of confronting the person. You need to go into any discussion with your eyes wide open knowing what outcomes are possible. Sometimes, people decide it is best to not act.


  • If you do chose to confront the person, provide clear concrete information about the situation from your perspective. Try not to be personal and deal in facts where you can. Use the information gained from working through the first point on this list.


  • Ask about the perspective of the other person. If you show genuine interest in understanding the other point of view (by asking open-ended questions such as 'how do you see the situation?') you can often reduce any defensiveness from the other person. This can open up dialogue and increase the chance of a positive outcome. However, this only works if communication is genuinely two-way (i.e., both listen to the other side).


  • Be clear about what and how you want the person to change their behaviour. Take into consideration their situation as well- perhaps there is a compromise position you can reach? If both parties contribute to the resolution, there is an increased chance that the plan will stick and be maintained over time. 


  • Be clear about the consequences of not meeting your expectations. You shouldn't frame these as threats. Just clear and concrete information so the other person is in no doubt what outcomes will result from their behaviours. Also, make sure you can deliver on these consequences! If you can't walk the talk, your credibility will nose-dive.


  • It is very important to be consistent and follow through with any actions you say will be taken on your part. If you say you will do X behaviour in response to Y, then you need to make sure this happens every time. If you don't, the other person might get the message that there are exceptions that can be exploited.


  • Rehearse what you plan to say to the difficult person. You can practice alone, or you could ask a trusted person to act in the role of the difficult person. Use positive coping strategies to help keep cool. For instance, you could use self-talk statements such as 'Their behaviour is not necessarily about me' or 'I can deal effectively with this situation'. Another suggestion is to practice relaxation strategies, such as diaphragmatic breathing.


  • Don't beat yourself up if things don't go to plan, or if you end up acting in a way you regret. You're only human (to quote a song title from the 'most annoying songs of the '80's' category), and you absolutely cannot expect yourself to pull of a great performance every time. This is especially the case when going into a situation that generates high levels of unpleasant emotions (such as raising difficult issues with others). Planning and preparation are some of the most effective ways to decrease the chance of things going pear-shaped.

An Extra Note...

Removing people from your life: Ultimately, this is an option that people usually have available. It is a serious decision that needs a lot of careful consideration. So, don't take this action lightly. You need to carefully think about the pro's and con's of doing this; both in the short AND long-term.




Photo credit: Duke Yearlook via photopin cc


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