Dealing With Difficult People

“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.” ~ Don Miguel Ruiz

“You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them.” ~ Rick Kirschner, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand

“Difficult People are your key to self-empowerment, you need to learn how to cope with them, not let them dominate and affect you.” ~ Janice Davies


I took a poll for topics for this this post and the subject that garnered the most response was “dealing with difficult people.”  That’s probably not a surprise to you.  It’s one of the most discussed subjects in the self-help genre, and often the most difficult to master.

The reason?  Complete lack of control.  We have no control over others and anytime we feel helpless, hopelessness isn’t far behind.  The secret to dealing with difficult people is surprisingly simple – it’s you.  If you strive to be easy to deal with, most people will deal with you easily.  I know, it’s not the answer you wanted to hear.

There are two articles in the WTL Newsletter this week.  The first describes seven strategies you can use when dealing with difficult people.  The second explains seven steps for reconciliation to help you rebuild a relationship after difficulty has led to damage.  Finally, I’ve shared my single most useful tool for disarming potentially difficult situations.  I call it the two-sentence intervention.

I hope you find this newsletter beneficial.  I certainly enjoy bringing it to you each week.  Let me know if you have any suggestions to make it more useful or enjoyable to read.  What subjects would you like to see covered?  How could the format be improved?  What other tools can I provide to help you?  Let me know, and as always, I hope you cultivate for yourself a Well-Tended Life.

Seven Strategies for Dealing with Difficult People

We all find ourselves in situations where we have to interact with people who rub us the wrong way.  If these individuals are family members or coworkers, interacting with them can become painful and exhausting or we avoid them completely.  There are alternatives.  No matter what, you will always be disappointed if you want/expect another person to change.   It’s not going to happen because you want it to.  In fact, that type of desire usually results in you being perceived as difficult by the other person.  If you are the difficult person in question, you know how others are going to be thinking about and responding toward you.

Instead, consider these seven strategies and how they can help you interact in a way that is more productive and pleasant.

  1. Look at yourself first.
    1. Most of you have heard of the phrase, “Life is a mirror.”  Most simply, it means that you get back what you put out.  In the case of people we find difficult, the trait in them that most annoys us is often a trait that we can also possess – or fear possessing.  That’s why it bothers us so much.
    2. It’s easy to identify someone else as being difficult.  But how many times do you look in the mirror and acknowledge that you are the one being difficult, especially when you feel pushed, cajoled or tired?  Know yourself and recognize what triggers your own responses.  Take responsibility for your actions without turning to the “dark side” so you can avoid becoming the difficult person that others dread dealing with.
    3. Avoid labeling or judging people.
      1. If you decide that you are dealing with a difficult person, you’re setting up the interaction to be difficult.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
      2. Negative thoughts that occur before the interaction even takes places will negatively impact the nature of the interaction and its outcome.  Instead, decide that you will commit to making the conversation a win-win.
      3. Pause before responding.
        1. Your natural response to a difficult person may be a quick or critical comeback.  Don’t do it!  That type of response can cause the conversation to spiral downward.
        2. There is tremendous power in silence.  It gives you the opportunity to think about how you want to respond rather than reacting.
        3. Think for a few seconds and ask yourself, “What is the best way for me to respond to this?”
        4. Trust that the other person does not indent to be difficult.  Take the time to compose yourself and think of your response instead of reacting immediately.
        5. Stop wishing they were different.
          1. This should probably be number one on the list.
          2. How many times have you thought, “If only she were more….?”
          3. It is a waste of mental energy on a futile effort and doesn’t work.  Difficult people are not irritating you on purpose; and the best way to see a change in them is to change your own thinking and behavior.
          4. If they see that you are behaving differently, they will react to you differently.
          5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
            1. Use a learning mindset approach.  Go into each interaction with an open mind – avoid prejudices or predictions to fill your mind before you even start.
            2. Really listen to what the other person has to say and remain open to their viewpoint.  When people feel heard and understood, they will be more willing to work with you.
            3. Ask questions rather than make statements.
              1. Difficult people often have strong opinions.  Sometimes they’re right, but other times they might be wrong.  And then their opinion differs from yours, the best way to make this point is to ask questions rather than make statements.  By asking questions, you might be able to help the person recognize the issues on her own, with less risk of a confrontation.
              2. Seek a Win-Win.
                1. Acknowledge, don’t argue.  Your first reaction to a difficult person may be to argue or defend why you are right.  When someone makes an unrealistic demand, we might blast out a snappy retort like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Are you crazy?”, which will only lead battle lines being drawn and the conversation will spiral downward.
                2. Instead, acknowledge their perspective and offer to collaborate on the next steps.  This type of response will not only position you are a partner in the solution, but will also lead to a better conclusion for both parties.

Seven Steps for Reconciliation

We’ve all been hurt by another person and, if we’re completely been honest, we’ve also been guilty of hurting others.  When injuries occur, it’s easy to let them fester.  We tend to overreact; either by obsessing about the injury or ignoring it completely.  Neither reaction is beneficial because emotional injuries are like cancers; without proper treatment they spread.  The seven steps below will put you on the path to healing emotional injuries with another person.

  1. Schedule a time to talk or meet.
    1. Start by scheduling a time to talk with the other person.  This avoids anyone feeling ambushed and allows time for any simmering emotions to cool off.  It also gives you time to prepare for the conversation by getting clear on your intention.
    2. Set the intention for the conversation.
      1. Be clear about what you want to accomplish from the conversation.  The intention is not to relive past hurts or assign blame, but to find common ground for moving forward.  If the goal is reconciliation, then it’s not productive to review the score.  Make your desire about moving forward.
      2. Share you intention with the other party.  Explain that you care about the other person and your relationship.  Tell her (or him) what you want to relationship to look like in the future.
      3. Call out behavior, not the person.
        1. To be successful, you must separate the person from the act.  It is not beneficial to tell them what they are.  Don’t say, “You are a liar and a cheat.”  There is no room for common ground when you stand in a place of judgment.
        2. Hurt people, hurt people.  We are all more than our behavior and negative behavior almost always comes from a place of past injury or insecurity (read FEAR).  Seek first to understand and then to be understood.
        3. Cite specific examples and how the behavior impacts you.
          1. Avoid vague comments and focus on specific behaviors.  Don’t say, “You’re such a snob.”  Instead say, “Last week, you made three disparaging comments about the clothes I was wearing.  This makes me feel like I’m not good enough and it hurts my feelings.”
          2. Spell out what you want to change
            1. Most of the time, people are stuck in their head and not thinking about how their words or actions impact you.  They are simply (re)playing the script they know.  Give them the opportunity to change by being very clear about what you want from them in the future.
            2. Keep it realistic.  You can’t ask another person to completely change overnight – no should you.  This is a negotiation.  Expect the other person to counter and ask something of you too.
            3. Request feedback as soon as possible
              1. Don’t turn it into a lecture.  Make your point and right away ask for feedback.
              2. Say, “What do you think about what I’ve said?” Or “Can you understand where I’m coming from?”
              3. Pay attention to non-verbal communication
                1. Regardless of how much you have prepared for the conversation, the other person may not be receptive.  Most of us don’t respond well to criticism – even if it’s valid.  Pay attention to the other person’s tone of voice, expression and body language.
                2. If the conversation stops being productive, then stop it.  Explain that you want to reconcile, not create another injury.  If necessary, agree to postpone until another time.  But if you do that, make sure you come back to it.  Set a date and time before you end this conversation.

The Two Sentence Intervention

This is perhaps the single most powerful tool I have ever encountered for dealing with difficult situations.  It very quickly gets to the bottom of almost every misunderstanding and provides common ground for moving forward.  I’ve shared it in every professional development and communication class I’ve ever taught.  I call it the two-sentence intervention.

You can use it as soon as you are aware of a difficult situation or a potential misunderstanding.

  1. “I’ve noticed…”
    1. First explain what you have noticed.  Use these words.  It makes it clear that you are not passing judgment, but instead explaining your perception of a situation.
    2. “Help me understand…”
      1. Next, ask for help in understanding.  It shows humility and that you are interested in understanding the other person’s perspective.  It’s really difficult to be mad at someone who is asking to better understand you and your opinion.

Try it and see if it doesn’t work.


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