Written By: Dr. Jan Anderson, PsyD, LPCC | I get to spend most of my time with clients coming up with “life hacks,” those simple and deliciously clever ways to deal with life’s frustrations and without a doubt, difficult people are at the top of the list.
They’re confounding, exasperating, maddening. Whether it’s your kid, your nemesis at work, a difficult relative or friend, or even your (present or future) ex, what is it about difficult people that makes them so difficult?
It’s not just that they’re so different from you. You probably like variety in other areas of your life. It’s actually hardwired into our brains to appreciate and seek out novelty — a rush of dopamine accompanies fresh experiences of any kind, brain research reveals.
Yet, in spite of knowing that difficult people think and operate very differently from you — maybe radically so — why do you persist in plowing ahead with approaches that would work with someone like you… but not them?
Let’s say, between you and the other person, you’re the more analytical and logical one, whereas the other person is more in touch with feelings and goes with their gut. Why would you try to influence an “intuitive” or a “feeler” with an approach that appeals to a “thinker?”
Now let’s reverse the scenario. It’s a different topic and this time you’re the more emotional one and the “difficult” person is being very cerebral. Why would you use an emotional appeal with someone that isn’t into their feelings — or yours?
“I’m okay. You’re not okay.”
Do any of these common conflictual scenarios resonate with you?
- You are very responsible and the other person is unreliable.
- You keep opening up with a person who isn’t transparent in return.
- You’re being straightforward and direct with a person who avoids, deflects, and sneaks around behind your back.
- You think it’s important to be polite and considerate and the other person has no problem being nasty or volatile and causing a scene.
- You’re concerned about your “brand” and the other person doesn’t care what other people think.
- You naturally fall into the role of peacemaker and the other person takes pride in being a fighter.
- You’re naturally accommodating and the other person likes to be in charge — a lot.
- You enjoy discussion and are receptive to an exchange of ideas. The other person has strong opinions and expresses no interest in or regard for yours.
CAVEAT: The reality is that in some situations, you’ll be on one side of the equation and other times you’re occupying the exact opposite position. However, I’ll bet that you identify with one of the above positions more often than its opposite.
Back to our dilemma. Why keep investing in tactics that would appeal to you… but not them? I work with people who have plenty of smarts, so when someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense, I start looking for missing information. With that piece of the puzzle in place, things can rapidly begin to shift out of that awful stuck place.
I’m Not Arguing. I’m Just Explaining Why I’m Right.
You know why it’s so hard to get inside that difficult person’s head, wrap your mind around their worldview and come up with something to which they might respond positively?
Because it feels so… wrong.
It’s not just that difficult people are different from you. It’s that they’re somehow wrong.
- They don’t think like me… but they should.
- So why should I have to be the one to adjust how I deal with them?
- If I’m going to meet them where they are, I have to go to the dark side, right?
The scary part is that before you know it, difficult people start to seem not quite human and therefore, undeserving of being treated with basic human decency. Here’s how the progression works:
Fear and loathing
So that’s our human condition. I don’t know if it’s possible to completely transcend our ego-centric way of thinking and stand outside our own personal silos for any extended period of time. I don’t know if it’s even necessary. I’ve set a lesser, more realistic goal. I just want to be as effective with other people as I possibly can, because that makes my life work better. I’m happier when I can do that. What will it take?
You Can Be Right And Happy.
How can we cultivate our ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, while firmly planted in our own? Isn’t that doing two opposite things at the same time? Isn’t that impossible?
It’s not impossible. In fact, we’re doing it all the time — just to be able to stand and walk requires a complex integration of opposite actions in the body. All we’re doing is applying that concept to create psychological balance (aka peace of mind).
Impossible? No. Challenging? Yes. Developing your ability and skill at entering someone else’s world so you can deal effectively with them — without becoming like them— is incredibly powerful and can produce extraordinary results. Not only will you handle difficult people better, you’ll make your already good relationships even better.
Fortunately, there are small, doable ways you can get started right away.
- Change the way you reference the difficult person.
When I label someone as “difficult,” I’m defining them globally, which is technically inaccurate. Fortunately, most people are not 100% difficult in every facet of their lives. For example, is the person oppressively opinionated about everything or is it confined to a couple of hot button areas like religion or politics? If so, make a small but powerful shift in your language to more accurately describe the person as “being difficult” or “acting difficult” or even, “I’m having difficulty with him/her.” Don’t underestimate how this one small step will yield big results in terms of your own emotional regulation. From that foundation of equanimity, you’ll be better able to keep your cool and avoid the embarrassing prospect of becoming part of the problem yourself.
- If someone is behaving negatively, respond by adopting the positive aspects of their negative behavior.What does that mean? Here are some examples:
- If someone is getting loud or yelling, don’t get quiet or speak softly. Match their negative behavior — yelling — with the positive aspect of it — a clear, strong voice. In other words, meet them where they’re at in a positive way. Once you’re on the same wavelength, it creates the possibility that you can now invite or influence them to join you in a calmer, more rational place for problem-solving.
- If you’re in a seated position and find yourself intimated by someone standing over you, rise to a standing position, too. Match the positive aspect of their intimidating energy by joining them — in a neutral standing position. They know how to stand up for themselves and now it’s obvious through your body language that you do, too. (There’s even research that suggests this tactic can help defuse potentially violent encounters.) If you start feeling intimidated on a phone call, stand up and notice how it changes your energy. Similarly, if someone is sitting and as a power play doesn’t offer you a seat, politely and confidently go ahead and take a seat.
Think of these as warmups to start boosting your E.Q. — your emotional intelligence skills and savvy. This success experience will motivate and prepare you for the more challenging psychological work ahead.
Hacks That Help
Go back to the list of examples at the beginning of this article and turn it into a self-test:
- Look at the set of opposites in each example and identify which is more “that’s me” versus “that’s not me.”
- Then choose the top three qualities from the list that define you.
Let’s say that a good description of who you are is responsible, straightforward and accommodating. If you uncharacteristically started acting unreliable, oblique and taking charge, it would feel really weird and wrong. Maybe it would feel risky, like something really bad would happen, if you began acting less responsible, less straightforward and less accommodating. If someone were to describe you as unreliable, sneaky and “a take-charge type,” it might be some of the worst things someone could say about you. Maybe you’ve worked your whole life to be as unlike those qualities as possible.
To think or behave differently from your iron-clad internal set of do’s and don’t’s would violate who you are as a person: “I just don’t do that,” “That’s just not me.” And yet, what if your original strengths that have served you so well are now limiting you — or even working against you? What do you do? To live your “best life” or be your “best self,” you may now need to expand beyond your original strengths and up your game to get what you want out of life.
I’m not advocating If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Getting on the other person’s wavelength or matching their energy in a positive way doesn’t mean moving into their realm of extreme. But it sure can feel like you’re going to the dark side when you first attempt to meet someone where they are. Or you may indeed overreact. It’s a bit tricky. Don’t be surprised if you need some help getting traction so you can make progress — without going too far.
It often helps to redefine the goal as something that feels more familiar, less radical and more achievable:
- What if I could show you a way to take a little less responsibility without becoming irresponsible? Let’s call that variation “self-responsible and helpful without taking responsibility for the other person’s part.”
- What if I could show you a paradoxical way to be straightforward in an indirect way? Let’s call that variation “straightforward in a way that doesn’t feel confrontational to the other person.”
- What if I could show you a way to be accommodating without being taken advantage of or taken for granted? Let’s call that variation “equally accommodating to self and others.”
Next, begin to “reframe” your felt-sense experience of standing in someone else’s shoes and yours at the same time. Let’s say it involves your taking less responsibility or being less accommodating. It would be natural to describe the feeling as “weird” or “wrong” or “risky” — all words with negative connotations. Instead, begin to substitute the following neutral words to describe the new territory you’re entering:
REMEMBER: This isn’t about changing or fixing yourself. This is a strengths-based process of getting smarter, savvier and more skillful. You’re still you, there’s now more to you — you’ve got more insight and skill in dealing effectively with more kinds of people.
I Didn’t Promise You A Rose Garden.
Where does all this lead? The ability to move the relationship to its optimum place. There are at least four possibilities:
- Best Case Scenario: The relationship improves, deepens and you actually get closer.
- As Good as it Gets: Within its limitations, what’s the best you can make the relationship? For example, you’ll be able to talk about some things, but other topics will be off-limits and you’ll not be as close as you’d hoped. (Oftentimes relationships with relatives, in-laws and work relationships settle into this category.)
- Damage Control: The best you can do is learn how to “handle” the person so they cause as little hurt and harm as possible to those around them, including you.
- Last Resort: Some situations are so toxic you have to remove yourself — or them. No confrontation, no explanation, just get out.
I can’t promise you that every relationship is salvageable and every situation redeemable. We’re just upping your chances. And in the process, you end up smarter, savvier, and maybe even happier.
Want more help planning for a divorce? Sign up for the next Second Saturday Divorce Workshop in your area.