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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Life Hacks to Handle Difficult People

Publisher’s note: This is part 2. Part 1 ran in MDU #116

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 impossible?

Impossible? No. Challenging? Yes. It depends on your ability and skill at entering someone else’s world so you can deal effectively with them, without becoming like them. It’s incredibly powerful and can produce extraordinary results. Not only will you will handle difficult people better, you’ll make your already good relationships even better, as well.

Fortunately, there are small, doable ways you can get started right now.

1. Change the way you reference the difficult person.

When I label someone as “difficult,” I’m defining them globally, which is technically inaccurate. Most people are not 100% difficult in every facet of their lives. 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.”

Don’t underestimate how this one small step will yield big results in terms of your own emotional regulation. From here you’ll be better able to keep your cool and avoid becoming part of the problem yourself.

2. If someone is behaving negatively, respond by adopting the positive aspects of their negative behavior.

Here are some examples:

If someone is getting loud or yelling, don’t get quiet or speak softly. Match their negative behavior, which is yelling, with the positive aspect of it by using 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 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, but 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 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 your energy changes. 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. — emotional intelligence skills and savvy. This success experience will motivate and prepare you for the more challenging psychological work ahead.

Hacks That Help

Let’s say that a good description of you is responsible, straightforward, and accommodating. If you started acting unreliable, oblique, and taking charge, it would feel really weird and wrong. If someone were to describe you as unreliable, sneaky, and controlling, it might be one 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 internal set of do’s and don’ts 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.

Redefining Goals and Behaviors

It can help 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: “self-responsible and helpful without taking responsibility for the other person’s part.”
What if I could show you how to be straightforward in an indirect way? Let’s call that: “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: “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 you 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:

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 just more to you. Now, 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? 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. Relationships with relatives, in-laws, and work relationships often 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.