Are difficult people making you feel incompetent, frustrated, angry, stressed, depressed? It’s estimated that about one person in ten is hard to cope with. Luckily, there are ways to deal with these obstructive or damaging people without bringing yourself down … AND get what you want from them.
We often just put up with difficult behaviour, telling ourselves it doesn’t matter, excusing it or trying to pretend it’s not happening. We can end up losing our temper. Or complaining to friends and colleagues, which means you’re still suffering from the difficult person … and everyone else now sees you as a powerless victim as well.
First, accept the way the person is. Don’t hope they’ll change. Second, you need to assess things objectively, to give you a chance of spotting ways you’re contributing to the problem, perhaps, or factors which trigger the difficult behaviour or fuel it. To help feel detached, pretend you’re advising a friend, or that you’re a therapist or consultant.
Often difficult people are trying to gain attention, approval or recognition of their status. Realising that, and giving them that as far as you can, can work wonders. A smile, looking them directly in the eye, a brief touch on the arm (if it’s natural in the situation), saying the magic words ‘You’re right,‘ (even if it’s just, ‘You’re right, it IS raining!’), staying in joint problem-solving mode (‘How can WE deal with this?‘), achnowledgement of their problems, rephrasing what they’ve said back so they know you’re attending to them … all have their place.
Here are some tips for dealing with common pains in the neck:
* The steamroller is loud, bullying, angry. It’s easy to be cowed, or lose your own temper — specially because they often WANT you to shout.
Before you face them, let out a few long slow breaths to calm yourself. If you feel about to explode, just say, ‘I’m sorry, I need to be calmer before we talk more about this,’ and GO AWAY for, at least 20 minutes to cool down.
Don’t try and soothe them or keep lowering your voice hoping they’ll get the hint and stop shouting. They’ll shout louder, because they’ll feel they aren’t getting through to you how seriously they feel. Stand firm, raise your own voice a bit. But stick to the point. Don’t get dragged off into arguments. Just say, ‘I disagree’, ‘I don’t share that point of view’. If you’re at fault, don’t defend or excuse, just say calmly, looking them in the eye,‘I’m sorry I did …’ When they interrupt, say, ‘You interrupted me.’ Then: ‘You interrupted me again’. Find a good reason to leave the room or change the direction of the conversation
* Snipers aren’t brave enough to be direct. They use unpleasant comments, hostile jokes, tell dirty stories which feel sexually aggressive or demeaning when their victim’s a woman … ‘Haven’t you got a sense of humour’ … ‘You’re too sensitive’ …. ‘Can’t take a joke.’
Don’t ignore them, don’t laugh, but look calm and interested. To make them back off or bring issues into the open, say, ‘Excuse me, I know you’re getting laughs, but it sounds as if you’re having a go at me. Are you concerned about …?’ Or, ‘That was very funny, but I think you’re trying to make a criticism. Do you have a problem with …?’ Get them alone for this if you can, and let them know you’d prefer they said things directly and sly digs and ‘jokes’ are unacceptable.
* Perpetual gloom. These people are so draining. You try to cheer them up … but when you leave the emotional contest of wills, everything looks gloomier, and you feel uptight and worn out. They LOVE the word ‘but’ and put a negative ‘but’ on everything. They feel powerless to change and always expect disappointment — and their negativity is infectious.
Don’t try and cheer them up! Acknowledge what they say, but don’t agree with it. Where their concerns are genuine, don’t lament the problem with them but focus on what to do to solve it. Put a positive twist on what they say.
When they say something neutral or positive, reward them with interest and attention. As soon as they start moaning, make an excuse to leave or put the phone down. They won’t know it, but you’ll be reshaping their behaviour and their thinking …
* Critics. They constantly find fault, and it’s easy to get defensive and feel put down. You may react aggressively, just take it, or seem to take it but make sure you get your own back somehow. But none of these stops the critic or keeps your self-esteem up. So acknowledge what they say, but don’t apologise or try to correct them. Get absolutely clear what they want and what would satisfy them – sometimes they’re expecting you to mind-read! In writing, so they can’t shift the goal-posts.
When they make general statements ‘You always’ …pin them down to particular instances and ask what could be done in such cases.
* The Gossiper spreads rumour — without caring whether it’s true or who they’re hurting. Maybe they want to seem ‘in the know’, special and important. Or righteous. Or bring someone popular or powerful, a potential rival, low. They’re often vague … ‘Everyone knows…’ ‘ They say…’ ‘,Someone told a friend of mine …’ ‘I feel I should tell you what so-and-so said/did because I’m your friend, but it’s a secret.’
Keep clear of the web of intrigue, speculation and innuendo. Pin them down. Ask precise questions. Check and double check. Be sure they’re clearly known as a mischief-maker and rumour-monger, not to be believed or trusted. A patient of mine was a manager whose whole team was miserable, mistrustful and hardly talking to each other. He realised his secretary was telling each malicious ‘secrets’ ‘in confidence’ about the others. He got them to bring it all into the open. And had her transferred.
Which is a useful reminder that difficult people usually have other victims, not just you. Team up and explore procedures for dealing with them.
And you usually have one final power. Leave the situation for good. If combating difficult people is using too much of your thought and talents — ask whether you’d be better off focusing your energies elsewhere.