How to Talk to Someone You Can’t Stand

Life forces you to interact with a lot of people you find annoying — or flat out can't stand. Here's how to make the best of them.

by Graham Techler
An illustration of a woman in a grey shirt talking to a woman in an orange shirt who is someone she ...

Finding yourself elbow-to-elbow with someone you don’t particularly like, locked in a conversation you don’t particularly want to have, happens to everyone. However, no demographic is more at risk for this than parents. From nosy relatives, to performative PTA parents, to shithead sports parents, or that father of the kid’s friend who has some interesting views, parents encounter a lot of frustrating people. Parenthood is a lifelong exercise in biting the bullet and having a conversation with someone who stresses you out.

Thankfully, centuries of “did you see the game last night” small-talk has led to an arsenal of skills to make things go as smoothly as possible. “For many of us,” writes Dr. Andrea Bonior in Psychology Today, “our ideal lives involve not having to interact with these people at all. But not only might that mentality lead to increased political polarization and tribalism in our culture, it’s also simply not a practical notion for the vast majority of us.” In other words, it’s worth it to take on the challenge and make it work. And to make it work better, there are some tips to follow. Here’s what to know.

Plan Ahead

The one thing sure to sink any conversation you’re already wary about is going in blind. This isn’t to say you have to come expecting a fight, but there’s no harm in giving yourself something productive to do ahead of time.

“Coming to the interaction with ideas for surface level conversations and with knowledge of how long you’ll have to spend with someone who bothers you can help to maintain perspective,” says Kryss Shane, an LGBT sex and relationship expert. “Think about two or three mundane topics to chat about if you know you must interact. Recent sporting events, holiday plans, your pets, or the weather are all easy to chat about without going deeper than surface level conversations.”

The idea here is simply to push the conversation towards subjects of your choosing that won’t make you uncomfortable, and away from an awkward silence.

Bookend Your Day Wisely

Another way of planning ahead is cushioning an interaction you don’t want to have with activities you’re looking forward to. Rig the day in your favor so the good outweighs the bad.

“Pair an unpleasant event with something you are looking forward to,” says Helen Godfrey, a counselor and life coach. “If you are forced to sit through a PTA meeting and you know that one person — you know who I’m talking about — that’s going to monopolize the conversation and make the meeting last way longer than necessary, why not grab dinner with the parents you do like afterwards?”

Pig-piling on the person you don’t like with the people you do won’t be helpful. That’s not what this is about. But you can use this moment of heightened appreciation for people you get along with to strengthen those friendships.

Plan an Out

After trying your best, there’s no shame in forming an exit strategy. “If you know you’ll be near someone you dislike, make plans for after the interaction so that, at a set time, you can excuse yourself because you have somewhere you need to be,” says Shane. “If you can’t physically leave, create the need to make a phone call. Worst case, excuse yourself to the restroom if you feel yourself beginning to get frustrated or angry. This break will allow you to calm down and avoid saying something you might regret or creating unnecessary drama.”

If you’re worried that the person will catch wind of what’s going on? Well, there’s not much you can do about that. All you can do is remain polite and gracious as you sprint out of the room.

Take a Moment of Self-Reflection

This is not to say that the problem is with you, but whenever there’s conflict with someone else, it’s a good, healthy thing to take a moment to self-reflect. “We all have triggers, and some people may trigger us more than others,” says Godfrey. “What bothers you the most about this person? What do they say/do that you find annoying? Think back to the first time you felt this way. My guess is that it stems from a long time ago and it is an emotional wound that hasn’t healed.”

It may not seem this way in the moment, but your annoyance and frustration is actually an opportunity for healing. You brain is announcing the problem to you, and that’s the best time to look at yourself and consider where this is all coming from.

“Another reason someone may bother you is because you are too much alike,” notes Godfrey. “That is really annoying to even think about, isn’t it? Sometimes we can’t see certain qualities that we have but we can see them in someone else. Projection is thinking that you are looking out the window at the other person but you are actually looking in the mirror.”

Bridge the Gap

No, you don’t have to be superhuman. There’s very little chance that you’re going to pull a 180 on this person and turn them into your best friend. But that’s not to say that there isn’t the possibility for some connection, especially if you do end up thinking your annoyance stems from the fact that you have more in common with the person that you originally thought.

“If you’re interested in starting a more meaningful relationship with someone, find aspects of their personality that you enjoy and try to focus on that when you approach them or interact with them…” says Shane. “You might ask if they volunteer anywhere, what great movies they’ve seen lately, or even something silly like, ‘if you won the lottery, how would you spend the money?’” Knowing what someone cares about, and what makes them happy, can’t only improve your opinion of them. It’ll at least make the conversation more palatable until gymnastics practice is over, and at the end of the day, that’s sometimes the best we can hope for.