The question I’m asked most often is, “How do I deal with difficult people?!”
Of course, difficult people come in many shapes and sizes.
There’s the gossipy co-worker and the nitpicky boss, the micro-managing manager and the insensitive colleague, the drama queen and the “my way or the highway” king, and so on (and on…) – and each type is most effectively handled in different ways.
Take heart, though, because this doesn’t mean I can’t answer the question. Nor does it mean you have to learn a bazillion different techniques. While it’s true that tuning your approach to the individual person and specific situation will get you the best results, there are still a few simple concepts you can apply to get a sense of relief and freedom from the difficult person.
Begin by recognizing that people don’t generally think of themselves as difficult.
Then notice that so-called “difficult” behavior almost always arises out of fear and anxiety.
In the heat of the moment – or at what my husband calls “game speed” – it’s challenging to stop and ask yourself, “What is this person afraid of or anxious about?”
It’s even more challenging to wonder, “Why would a reasonable person behave this way?” (Especially when you’re gritting your teeth over their actions and thinking that they’re anything but reasonable.)
However, asking yourself these questions can lead to insights that can, in turn, lead you to a different approach. Instead of simply snarling at the difficult person or trying to ignore them (neither of which is usually very effective – have you noticed?), you now have information you can use to create a more positive outcome.
And while it may feel counter-intuitive to respond with empathy when you, after all, are the one who’s being treated badly, you’ll be surprised by how effective this simple technique can be.
Does it work in all cases? Of course not – and this is only a starting point. But here’s one other interesting benefit to this practice: in asking those two questions, you’ll start to gradually become aware that their behavior isn’t about you – it’s all about them. It truly isn’t personal – which we all know intellectually, but seldom manage to remember in the heat of the moment.
And by the way, it’s also helpful to remember that there are times when you are the difficult person in someone else’s eyes!
(Note also that the difficult people I’m discussing here are not actively malicious. Bullying, sexual harassment, and intimidation are an entirely different thing from garden-variety difficult, and I’ll talk about dealing with them in a future post.)