How To Deal With Difficult People Without Losing Your Cool

We all encounter people who push our buttons. Consider this your guide to not letting them know the sequence.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 
Man closing his eyes and trying to be calm

Family members who never look on the bright side of life. Neighbors who would like you to know that the sound of your kids’ playing in the backyard interrupted their nap. Coworkers who can’t help but micromanage everything. There’s no shortage of difficult people who enter your orbit and cause your blood pressure to redline. Unless you want to go full hermit, there’s rarely a way to avoid them. Such people are just a part of life. There are, however, plenty of tactics you can employ to better handle difficult people and keep your frustration at bay.

So, what makes difficult people so persistently, well, difficult? Ian Parker, clinical director of mental health treatment center Newport Healthcare says lack of empathy is at the heart of the problem. “I often think of difficult people as those who are standing in line at a restaurant and begin to act as if they are the only ones who are waiting for their service,” he says. “They begin badgering the staff, demanding to speak with a manager, and can be thrown into a fit of anger over small or perceived slights.” In short, Parker says, such people “lack awareness and empathy.”

Now, people are people and might just be having a bad day. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and so on. But sometimes folks are chronically difficult. Mental health professionals say that the damage of can be minimized through patience, empathy, and some self-interrogation. Oh, and not being difficult yourself helps, too.

1. Consider Whether the Difficult Person Is You

Do you find yourself constantly beset by difficult people? Take a step back and a hard look into the mirror. As Holler philosopher Raylan Givens once said, “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Janine Ilsley, Integrative Therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy says that some people’s nervous systems can have overactive responses to external situations. These responses, or “emotional charges”, cause discomfort. Instead of interrogating their internal response, people blame it on those around them for causing the discomfort.

“We have an automatic tendency to look outside ourselves to explain the raw discomfort, often by blaming the other and defending ourselves or whatever defense mechanism has assisted us in the past, rather than taking charge of our experience by internally responding to it,” Ilsley says.

Take time to listen to your feelings first and consider if your reaction is truthful to the moment.

2. Don’t Give Them The Fight They Want

Difficult people tend to thrive on confrontation and come alive when someone loses their cool. So, when you present them with any kind of argument, you’ve already lost the battle. It doesn’t matter how bulletproof your logic. They want a fight and you’re giving them one.

“Often, trying to reason with people who are unreasonable is a set-up for conflict,” says Marriage and Family Therapist Layla Ashley.

3. Kill The Headlights And Put It In Neutral

Psychologist Jaime Zuckerman recommends treating difficult people with the stone-faced “just the facts, ma’am” demeanor of a ’50s TV cop. With difficult people, you always want to stay neutral in your responses to them,” Zuckerman says. “So, if they start screaming or become arrogant, you don’t want to meet them where they’re at. Stay fact based and at ease.”

When you’re dealing with somebody who has heightened anger, frustration, or anxiety, the more you raise your voice or the more you try to argue with them, the deeper into that pattern in that dynamic you become. If you’re neutral, you don’t give them anything to latch onto. You’re like a boxer letting your opponent tire themselves out with round after round of wild swings.

4. Accentuate The Positive

Everybody thinks they’re the good guys in their life stories. And often you can diffuse a situation with a difficult person — or at least temporarily catch them off guard — by acknowledging whatever good intentions they might have. This doesn’t mean betraying your principles or using deception. Pluck a single point of agreement from the difficult person’s bouquet of aggravating bullshit and play it up.

“You can agree with what is true, while asserting your own position,” Ashley says. “For example, your friend is laying a guilt trip on you for saying no to babysitting her child. You could say, ‘I’m happy you’re trying to spend more quality time with your husband, however I’m not available to babysit this weekend.’”

5. Acknowledge And Validate

Life coach Natalie Fayman says people often become “difficult” when they feel frustrated and unheard. “Taking the time to truly listen to and understand the person you’re talking to is the fastest way to defuse an emotionally-charged conversation,” Fayman says.

Finding the maturity and grace to listen to someone who’s driving you up a wall can be very difficult. So don’t look at it as taking the high road. If it helps, you can view it as a tactic you’re using to trick somebody that’s bugging you. Either way, acknowledging and validating a person’s grievances can knock the wind out their sails. Listen carefully to their complaints and show them you understand it through a statement that shows you were paying attention.

“When someone feels that they’ve been truly heard and understood, this usually tones down the intensity of their emotional state,” Fayman says.

6. Set Boundaries (And Expect Them To Be Tested)

If your natural inclination is to keep people happy and go along with the flow, difficult people will eat you for lunch, then nibble on you for the rest of the afternoon, not out of hunger but just because they know they can. Being very clear about how you’re willing to be treated is of utmost importance with difficult people. Set your limits ahead of time and be clear with yourself that while those limits will be tested you will hold firm. “If you know somebody’s difficult, it almost helps to go into the situation expecting it to be difficult rather than hoping that it’s not,” says Zuckerman.

7. Consider Cutting Ties

Sometimes some people just aren’t worth the aggravation. It can be a tough call but ghosting an impossibly difficult person might be the best thing for both of you in the long run, says Gail Saltz MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry The New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast. You don’t have to deal with all that noise and the shock of losing a punching bag might spur some much-needed self-awareness on the difficult person’s part.

“If you’ve tried repeatedly to explain how you feel, if the difficult person cannot or will not make any changes, if you’re caught in a constant cycle that makes you generally feel terrible more of the time than you feel good about the relationship, if this person not only doesn’t bring out the best in you but rather brings out the worst, if you feel better when they aren’t in your life, all of these indicate this may not be the relationship to hold onto,” says Saltz.

After you’ve tried all the above, sometimes severing ties is the best way forward.

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