3 Secret Tactics for Dealing with Difficult People


Difficult people can inhabit (and intrude into) many areas of our lives: work, home, neighborhood, social and professional affiliations, even at the sanctuary of the gym! Whether someone acts defensive, rude, passive-aggressive, critical, or lies and then turns things around, difficult people have something in common: they are frustrating to deal with.

In an already stressful world, having to interact with difficult people can take its toll, especially when those challenging people are family, co-workers, bosses, or neighbors (in other words, people who you have to see on a continuous basis). However, there are some tactics that may help you keep your sanity — and sense of control — intact. Listed below are some of my personal favorites that have helped me.

Have a Clear Goal

Over two decades ago, I was visiting my dear friend Amy, who was dying of lung cancer. Even though I was there to take care of her, she decided to give me a gift that I still use to this day and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. The gift was a simple but powerful sentence: “When you have to confront someone, make sure to have a clear goal in mind.” (Kindhearted and thoughtful Amy knew that I had to deal with a number of difficult people). Driving away from her house on that brisk Autumn afternoon, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. 

If you want to keep peace with a certain irrational person in your life, it may be best not to fight fire with fire, I thought. But if you’re sure that you’d be fine with losing someone you feel has grown too oppressive, you may want to defend yourself as you’ve never done before and let the pieces fall where they may. Just make sure to have a clear game plan in mind before you confront that difficult person — or the results may be quite different than what you had intended. 

Compromise in a Bigger Way than Usual

Oftentimes some of the most difficult people you may have to contend with embrace an exaggerated sense of self-importance, have little empathy for others (although they may put on a good act), would rather “win” than ever admit to ever being wrong, and hardly — if ever — apologize. Therefore, it may be quite beneficial for you to walk into any kind of negotiations/and or confrontations with challenging people by letting go of any kind of expectations in regard to receiving an “I was wrong,” “I understand your side of things,” or a “I’m sorry” from them. 

Yes, it would be lovely to hear these things, especially when that difficult person has acted way out of line and trampled on your feelings (and you know that if the foot was on the other shoe, they’d be beyond livid), it will still be advantageous to pull up your own empathy (most difficult people are often quite sad and empty, even if they cover it up with an over-confident mask to the rest of the world). 

Therefore, make sure to admit your own mistakes, apologize when appropriate, and let them feel as if they’ve “won” in some way (for example, perhaps you gift them the sweater — but not the jacket — that that they haven’t returned after three months, decrease the amount on the bill they owe you, or allow them to get the last word in). These may not be compromises you want to make, but if you choose your battles wisely, your own mental health doesn’t suffer to the degree it may have in the past in dealing with their irrational behavior. And that is way more important than a sweater!

Set Boundaries

Although it can be helpful to compromise more than usual when dealing with difficult people, it is also important to set clear boundaries with them. A simple, “Please don’t talk to me that way,” is a completely appropriate response when someone is being rude. And even though it may stall negotiations, a “I need to go now/get off the phone,” etc. when you’re being berated means that you’re taking care of yourself (and may stop you from losing it yourself). 

It’s a complicated balance, when communicating with difficult people, I know. Oftentimes, we just want the negativity to end and would rather swallow our own needs than challenge the behavior of the emotional tyrants in our lives. In the long run, though, we may end up feeling even more angry, drained, and resentful if we don’t take care of ourselves. (Whatever happens, by the way, it can be helpful to utilize self-care techniques afterwards, such as exercising, meditation, and processing your feelings via journal writing). And remember that even though you can’t control the action of others, you still have choices. 

Challenging a difficult person may mean that you lose him and, on the other hand, if you want to keep the peace, you may have to continue the tricky dance of maneuvering around emotional land mines. No matter how you decide to engage with the challenging people in your life, make sure your goals are clear before communicating with them, compromise when appropriate, set your boundaries in the best ways possible, and remember to relish your time and interactions with the thoughtful, kind, and loving people in your life. 

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