Difficult people can be a part of our lives in several forms; they could be family members, spouses, co-workers, bosses or acquaintances. Simply having a conversation with them can prove to be a dramatic and stressful experience that leaves us feeling drained and overwhelmed. Some people can be so prickly, aggressive and challenging to handle that you may be tempted to simply walk away from the conversation. Alternately, we may be inclined to complain to friends about the thorny personality, but these options do not always represent lasting solutions. For example, you may work under a difficult boss and it may not be practical to walk away from him or her. Hence, it’s better to use effective techniques that allow you to deal with such individuals while keeping your serenity intact at the same time.
The secret often lies in taking responsibility for our own reactions and emotions arising from the interaction. At the end of the day, dealing with a difficult boss or co-worker depends on our confidence, esteem and communication abilities. However, dealing with people who are considered generally difficult by most is easier than dealing with someone who displays animosity specifically towards you. This article will explain useful strategies that help you deal with difficult people in an effective manner to preserve your emotional balance and confidence at the same time. Dealing with unreasonable people can be a frustrating, annoying, exasperating and, at times, even frightening experience.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by a difficult person.
The broad category could include those who will not let you speak a word in the conversation, others who refuse to honour commitments, still others who intimidate you and so on; they come in every conceivable variety. From the person who cuts in front of you in the traffic to the boss who does everything they can to make your life a living hell; they all fall under the category of difficult people and each one of us has had run-ins with them at some point in our lives. Overall, these are generally people who compete for privilege and power, as well as the spotlight. They may also be those who enjoy putting others down in order to feel better about themselves. We will examine different type of difficult people, explain how to handle each type and also describe some excellent general tips that help you deal with difficult people.
Controlling personalities are driven by the need to constantly criticise others and prove themselves right. They will invariably furnish excuses for their own mistakes and will exhibit a strong propensity to micro-manage every task. Proving by rational argument that you are right will not work because they will always find something to criticise and will not back down. The best way to handle a controller is to refuse to be intimidated and simply say that you have done a good job and stand up for yourself. Avoid giving excuses or mollifying them and above all, avoid playing the blame game with them.
Competing personalities perceive every situation as a contest of sorts in which they have to win, no matter what. They are often encouraged by weakness as they see this as a ‘win’. The best way to deal with competitors is to refrain from showing emotion (including exasperation, exhaustion or irritation). For example, instead of saying that you are feeling exhausted, choose to suggest that you will get back to them the next day when you feel fresh. Competing personalities are also prone to jealousy when they see you praised or commended. Similarly, they will also pitch in with their bit (about them) whenever you want to say something. Such people usually behave in a competitive manner due to a sense of insecurity, which is why they feel the need to constantly prove themselves. Also remember that just because they think they’re better than you does not mean it is true. Simply refuse to play the game, concentrate on your work and avoid trigger situations. If you feel, for example, that the conversation is veering towards competitiveness, change the subject. Diversify your group at work so that you have other people to talk to.
Clingy or Excessively Needy Personality
On the surface, this may not sound like a difficult personality, but constantly having to reassure a co-worker or colleague can be exhausting and tedious. Such personalities will usually take a mile if you offer an inch. Confrontation will simply end up hurting their feelings and make it awkward to work together. In such situations, you can try helping them out sometimes but offering alternatives at other times. For example, you can try saying, “I don’t have time to help you complete your report, but maybe you can try working on it at your house”. Offer an independent option that does not involve sponging off your time or energy.
As a busy mum at work, you will need time and energy to deal with other chores once you return home so it’s better to draw subtle boundaries where needy colleagues are concerned. Avoid making a habit of offering assistance every time they ask for it. Another subtle tactic is to make yourself less available to the clingy character. You can always give work as a reason. If all else fails, sit them down and gently (but firmly) explain that you simply do not have the extra time to keep helping them out as you have your own responsibilities to deal with.
It can prove to be extremely annoying to have someone grumbling and complaining in your ear all the time. Chronic complainers are not really negative people (we will discuss negative people in the next section), but they view the world and all the events happening to them as negative. Remember that complainers are usually looking for a place to vent their feelings and simply nodding will help a lot. Do not roll your eyes or get tempted to check your text messages or proffer solutions (this will prolong the conversation). Show that you have been listening and acknowledge the fact without getting deep into the conversation. Validation, redirection and sympathy will usually soothe them and get them going on their way. Please remember that validation is not the same as placation at all and mollifying them will only end up fuelling their bitterness.
For example, you could try saying, “It must be very difficult to have to deal with that malfunctioning printer again. We’d better get back to completing the presentation for ABC Company as it needs to be completed by tomorrow”.
Listen to their problem and ask them how they intend to resolve it. This will help deflect their thoughts in the direction of searching for a solution.
Aggressive personalities can come across as dominating, abusive, confrontational, hostile or even intimidating. Simply put, such people try to stand tall by cutting off the heads of others. Although it may seem challenging at first, keep your calm and maintain composure. The aggressive person wants you to lose emotional balance so that they can take advantage of your weakness (as they see it). De-personalise the situation in your mind because the things that they say are not directed at you, the words are an extension of their personalities. By reducing personalisation, we are able to distance ourselves mentally and avoid overreaction. You can also consider physically distancing yourself from such people and minimising engagement. Keep your questions probing and constructive and shift the onus back to the aggressor.
Aggressor: You’re so stupid.
You: If you’re going to be disrespectful to me, I am going to walk away. Are you sure that this is what you want?
Another way to deal with an aggressive personality is to change the topic when you notice that the conversation is threatening to become intense. This helps deflect their attention and it also puts you in charge of the flow of conversation.
General Tips and Techniques to Deal with Difficult People
- Listen quietly: people want to be acknowledged or heard and listening helps them feel validated. With unreasonable people, we may be thinking of what we want to say next, but a little patience can go a long way. Most people will lose steam in less than five minutes.
- Focus on your breathing and stay calm. This may seem challenging to do at first and you may be tempted to respond strongly, but try to avoid giving in to the impulse. Like the old cliché, counting up to 10 helps control disproportionate reactions. You will find that with consistent practice, this habit will begin to come naturally to you.
- Although you may feel that the temptation is severe, avoid saying things that you will regret. The conversation is likely to degenerate into a shouting match and will do nothing to resolve basic issues. Ugly confrontation is more likely to worsen the situation and make workplace situations awkward. Even if we lose our cool and shout back, this is our choice. After all, our reactions lie under our control.
- Look for the hidden emotions and needs of the difficult person. Most difficult people have a strong underlying reason for their behaviours. The causes may boil down to insecurity, need for attention or craving for approval and so on. Try to identify the hidden inner need of the person.
- While humour is a useful tool in some situations, it can be tricky to use in others. Humour or even smiling may backfire and come across as mocking or sarcastic. Make sure you understand the situation before infusing humour.
- Stop insisting on compliance from the other person to calm down or stay quiet – this will only serve to make them more irate than before. Ask them what the problem is and ask them to vent. Most people look for an outlet to express their feelings.
- Pay special attention to the tone of your voice. Raised or shrill voices imply heightened emotion and shouting is usually associated with anger. Try to speak in an even monotone, even though you are annoyed. Although this is easier said than done, it goes a long way in defusing a negative conversation.
- If you find that the person is crossing limits and boundaries (this is especially relevant in cases of aggressive persons) or if the person is using abusive language, assert yourself and display confidence in your body language.
- Remember that one size usually does not fit all situations. Use your knowledge of the person to decide on your response. The responses that would work for a complainer, for example, may not work for a complaining personality.
- After a stressful encounter, take proactive steps to de-stress yourself. Talk to a friend, play with your child or pet or else, go for a run. Release pent-up emotions through physical activities.
Difficult people, situations and relationships exist in every workplace. You may suffer from working under a boss who belittles you at every opportunity, co-workers who form cliques and deliberately leave you out or colleagues who resent your presence and constantly undermine you. The emphasis should not be on changing the difficult person but on consciously monitoring your reactions and behaviour. How we react (rather than the actual difficult behaviour) decides our subsequent mood, feelings and thoughts. In certain cases, if nothing works, you may be obliged to resort to a confrontation to thrash things out. Angry confrontations can be draining so it’s a good idea to try other tactics first and to use them consistently. Most of the time, the situation will be resolved without any bones broken. Dysfunctional approaches can often result in workplace disasters and lead to devastating career consequences.
The important thing is that we must learn to deal with difficult people because one will meet them in every walk of life. If you leave the situation unaddressed, it will become progressively worse and prove more difficult to deal with. In fact, your emotions may then begin to fester to a point when you may find it impossible to go to work. Addressing the issues early on helps maintain objectivity and control; our reactions will be rational and calm. The truth is that most of us would tend to be shocked and embittered when faced with unprofessional and dramatic behaviour. It is a good idea to pause and understand what is happening around us. Else, failure to deal with difficult people may lead to constant conflict in the workplace and you may be perceived as a person who is unable to resolve your own problems. Learning to deal with difficult people can help de-escalate potentially explosive situations at work and resolve situations objectively.
It can take a lot of patience, control and integrity of character to avoid overreacting while dealing with difficult people. Give yourself credit every time you succeed in doing so.
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