We’ve all met our fair share of difficult people – it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s an absolute certainty that you will encounter them. In fact, as hard as it is to imagine, at times you may have even been the difficult person – from another person’s perspective.
But, there’s difficult and then there’s difficult – some people go out of their way to provoke a negative reaction, to intimidate or to manipulate. How do you deal with people like that? Is it even possible? Fortunately it is – read on for our favorite strategies to dealing with the difficult people in your life.
Steps to Dealing with Difficult People
Know when to fold ’em.
Kenny Rogers gives the best advice on dealing with difficult people (the video is fast-forwarded to the most important part).
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
Look, I don’t even listen to country, but for that gem of advice, I’ll make an exception. Now most of the time, you’ll find this advice (cut ties when you need to) at the end – tucked away like an afterthought. My opinion – it’s the most important piece of advice you need to know. Why? Because all great negotiators know that you have the most power when you’re willing to walk away. And make no mistake, when you’re dealing with difficult people, it is a negotiation – sometimes you can find a common ground; other times you just need to cut them out of your life.
Of course, there are times when it seems like you can’t cut people out of your life – you can’t choose your family, right? But the truth is, you always have options – they might not be easy choices to make, but you really have to ask yourself if it’s worth having toxic people in your life. Even if you can’t cut them out completely, you can almost always limit your exposure to them to the bare minimum.
But what about the times when cutting them out isn’t an option? Or your circumstances make it difficult to limit your expose to them? Or if you plan on cutting them out of your life, but want to know what you can do in the meantime? Or what if you truly believe that there’s something which can be done to make the relationship better? Then you need a strategy.
Realize where the power is.
When dealing with difficult people, there’s always one thing you can count on: they’re not going to change. The reason why they’re difficult in the first place, is because they learnt, from a young age, that those types of behaviors get them what they want. And what they want is likely to be different from what you want, and that’s fine – everyone is entitled to having different values and different priorities.
The critical thing to realize is that you’re not going to change a difficult person. It doesn’t mean they won’t change, but it’s up to them – which is exactly how it should be. But, you can change yourself, and that’s where the power is, because by changing your attitude and how you react to them, you can totally transform the relationship.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll like you, so don’t count on that as your outcome, but at least you’ll be able to have a potentially workable relationship.
Change your attitude.
How do you deal with people who like to push your buttons? Get rid of your buttons. Changing your attitude about the difficult person and how they behave is, bar none, the most powerful thing you can do. Why? Because all your behaviors flow from your attitude – change your attitude, your reactions change and as a result the difficult person is likely (but not always, so don’t count on this as an outcome) to behave differently too.
By changing your attitude you go from being a reactive victim, to a proactive person with options – you always have a choice about how you behave. Of course, getting to the point where you’ve truly changed your attitude is going to take some work on your part, but isn’t it worth it for your emotional health?
Your attitude is made up largely of your perspective, and two of the most powerful ways of thinking about the difficult people in your life are:
It’s not personal.
Your difficult person behaves the way they do because it gets them the results they want, or they just don’t know how to behave differently. It’s got nothing to do with you – if you weren’t there, you can bet they’d still behave this way with someone.
Right now it may not seem funny, but from some perspective, maybe looking back at it years from now, it will be. So, with the right perspective, you could find it funny now – just make sure you don’t laugh at them.
Remember you can’t fake your attitude – try on those perspectives or any which work for you and see the difficult person through a new lens. It takes work, and you may not get it at first, but when you do, you’ll know that it’s been worth it a thousand times the effort you put in.
Change your behavior.
Often changing your behavior is just as powerful as changing your attitude, and it’s something you can do pretty easily. Changes in behavior can also lead to a positive change in your attitude. The one thing you need to be careful of though, is to avoid letting a negative attitude taint new behaviors. Since communication is mostly non-verbal (body language, tone of voice), you can’t expect to try out new behaviors and not have the negative attitude come across – you don’t have to pretend to like them, but you’ve got to be at least neutral (and be prepared for them to possibly view your new behaviors with suspicion).
Next, you need to know their behavior type – difficult people can be broadly categorized into a number of different types. The first thing to realize is that they are not their type, in other words, in a different context, with a different person, the difficult person may behave completely differently – e.g. they may be a bully in the office, but a total pussycat with their kids at home.
There are many different categories for difficult people, but we like the one used by Brinkman and Kirschner in their excellent book Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst and the categories in Bramsons battle-tested book, which is also excellent, Coping with Difficult People.
Briefly, here are the categories and your outcomes:
The bully; the end (they want) justifies the means. Outcome: command respect.
Covert-aggressive; finds your weaknesses and uses them against you behind your back, and with well-aimed shots in public. Outcome: smoke them out.
Know everything; won’t listen to you. Outcome: get them to consider your ideas.
Don’t know everything; exaggerate, brag, mislead and distract. Outcome: redirect ideas back to reality.
Blow up spectacularly. Outcome: take control and bring back to calm.
Quick to agree, slow to deliver (if ever). Outcome: make it safe to be honest, get solid commitments.
Procrastinator; scared to make decisions. Outcome: help with their decision making process.
Try to be invisible; don’t give anything to the communication. Outcome: get them to open up.
Answer is always no. Outcome: redirect to problem-solving attitude.
Victim; woe is me. Outcome: redirect to problem-solving attitude.
Both books will give you specific strategies for dealing with the different types of difficult people you encounter, and are well worth the read even if there are no difficult people in your life yet.
Dealing with difficult people is challenging, there’s no doubt about that, but at the same time they also offer you the greatest opportunities for growth – most people can be their best when everything is going right, but what differentiates the good from the great is, can you be your best when it’s all going wrong?
If you can answer yes to this, if you can handle difficult people with style, by sticking to your values and your personal code of conduct, then you will look back at the time you spent with them as the fire that helped to forge your character.
Your turn: Were you able to turn around a difficult relationship with someone? How did you do it? Was it worth it? How did your life improve as a result? Let us know.