The Art of Handling Difficult People
Regardless of our age or social status, there will always be some difficult people out there who want nothing more than to bully and belittle us. Sometimes they’re colleagues at work, sometimes they’re people in our neighborhoods, sometimes they’re those mean kids on the playground…
And just as difficult people will always exist in the world, so too will our power to choose how we respond to them. Do we let them make their pain our own? Or do we choose to transform that pain into personal growth and strength? Do we let them win? Or do we choose to win?
It’s hard to make wise choices in the heat of the moment. But when we choose to win and transform pain into personal growth and strength, we aren’t just improving our own lives, we’re also improving the lives of the people we love, and the people who look up to us.
With that said, however, sometimes handling difficult people—and “winning”—is, well, difficult!
- Practice detaching yourself from other people’s bias opinions.— You may not be able control all the things people say and do, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. The way people treat you is their problem, how you respond internally is yours. What you need to remember is that the things people say and do to you is much more about them, than you. People’s reactions to you are about their perspectives, biases and past experiences. Whether people think you’re amazing, or believe you’re disgusting, again, is more about them and how they view the world. Now, I’m not suggesting we should be self-indulged narcissists and ignore all the opinions and commentary we receive from others. I’m simply saying that incredible amounts of hurt, disappointment and sadness in our lives come directly from our tendency to take things too personally. In most cases it’s far more productive and healthy to let go of other people’s good or bad opinions of you, and to operate with your own intuition and insight as your guide.
- Wish them well and move forward with your day. — Don’t lower your standards, but do remember that removing your expectations of others is the best way to avoid being disappointed by them. Realize that there’s no reason to expect others to treat you the way you treat them—not everyone has the same heart as you. Meditate on that. Let it sink in. Ultimately, the real test is being kind to unkind people. And yes, you can always stand tall and be sincerely kind to people you strongly disagree with. Remind yourself that you never know what someone has been through in their life, or what they’re going through today. Just do your best to be kind, generous, and respectful, no mater what. Truth be told, all the hardest, coldest people you meet were once as soft as a baby. And that’s the tragedy of living. So when people are rude and difficult, be mindful—be your best. Give those around you the “break” that you hope the world will give you on your own “bad day” and you will never, ever regret it.
- Model the behavior you want to see. — When someone insists on foisting their hostility and drama on you, be an example of a pure existence. Ignore their outlandish antics and focus on compassion. Communicate and express yourself from a place of peace, from a place of love, with the best intentions. Use your voice for good, to inspire, to encourage, to educate, and to spread the type of behavior you want to see in others. This, of course, is much easier said than done. It takes long-term practice. Even with decades of practice behind me, I sometimes catch myself being rude to people who are rude to me—I behave badly because they behaved badly. And even if the situation is absolutely their fault, my behavior only escalates the situation. So I do my best to take a deep breath and set a good example of how to deal with anger and frustration. I try to be patient and compassionate with them—to demonstrate a positive way of handling difficult people. And doing so always helps me make progress, even if it’s not instantaneous.
- Take positive control of negative conversations. – It’s okay to change the topic, talk about something positive, or steer conversations away from pity parties, drama, and self-absorbed sagas. Be willing to disagree with difficult people and deal with the consequences. Some people really don’t recognize their own difficult tendencies or their inconsiderate behavior. You can actually tell a person, “I feel like you ignore me until you need something.” You can also be honest if their overly negative attitude is what’s driving you away: “I’m trying to focus on positive things. What’s something good we can talk about?” It may work and it may not, but your honesty will help ensure that any communication that continues forward is built on mutually beneficial ground.
- Proactively establish healthy and reasonable boundaries. — Practice becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Note the times and circumstances when you’re resentful of fulfilling someone else’s needs. Gradually build boundaries by saying no to gratuitous requests that cause resentfulness in you. Of course, this will be hard at first because it may feel a bit selfish. But if you’ve ever flown on a plane, you know that flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to others, even their own children. Why? Because you cannot help others if you’re incapacitated. In the long run, proactively establishing and enforcing healthy and reasonable boundaries with difficult people will be one of the most charitable things you can do for yourself and those you care about. These boundaries will foster and preserve the best of you, so you can share the best of yourself with the people who matter most, not just the difficult ones who try to keep you tied up.
- Make extra time for yourself. — Difficult people who wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions are obviously hard to handle. They want others to join their 24/7 pity party so they can feel better about themselves. And you may feel pressured to listen to their complaints simply because you don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a compassionate ear and getting sucked into their emotional drama. If you are forced to live or work with a difficult person, then make sure you get enough alone time to relax, rest, and recuperate. Having to play the role of a “focused, rational adult” in the face of relentless moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, their toxic attitude can infect you. So remember that even people with legitimate problems and clinical illnesses can still comprehend that you have needs as well, which means you can politely excuse yourself when you need to.
- Let them know that you, respectfully, do not care. — This one is essentially a last resort. If you’ve tried your best to communicate respectfully with a difficult person, or to gracefully distance yourself from them, but they insist on following you around and attacking you for whatever reason, it’s time to speak up and tell them that their words are meaningless. In such situations, I challenge you to make this your lifelong motto: “I respectfully do not care.” Say it to anyone who relentlessly passes public judgment on something you strongly believe in or something that makes you who you are. And remind yourself that you did nothing wrong. Some people will inevitable judge you no matter what you do, and that’s OK. You affected their life; don’t let them affect yours.