7 Top tips for dealing with difficult people

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There have been people put on this earth to push your buttons, tick you off and suck the life out of you. You know who they are.”

This statement was written by Marsha Petrie Sue, author of Toxic People. Her observation is one that strongly resonates because most of us have contact with people we just don’t like. They can be frustrating relatives, obnoxious neighbours, exasperating colleagues, annoying customers, an ex-spouse, a demeaning boss. . . . Because we can’t totally avoid humans it’s vital that we learn how to live as harmoniously and productively as possible with those who irritate us. Here are seven tips for getting along with people you don’t like.

#1. Work with this acronym: TLC.

The letters stand for Take it; Leave it; or Change it and are recommended by Petrie Sue as the place to begin when dealing with a challenging indivi­dual. She explains that Take it means accepting “events as they are in the moment” and reminding yourself “that it is okay for right now—maybe not perfect but liveable”. Leave it is the choice to reject the situation, step out of your comfort zone and say to yourself, I’m not going to accept it the way it is, and I know I can’t change it, so I’m leaving. Petrie Sue says an example would be losing a client, only to have a better one appear. Change it may initially feel difficult or overwhelming, but is a viable approach. “Remember, if you can’t accept it and don’t want to leave it, then working for a change is the only remaining option.”

#2. Drop the ego.

Self-pride can cause us to react foolishly and carelessly to another person’s beha­viour. Anytime you find yourself offended by an individual’s words or acts, do your best to drop the ego. That will then allow you to respond skillfully. In his book, The Secret Power Within, martial arts screen legend Chuck Norris tells of going to a small Texas restaurant after a long day of filming a television series. He was still dressed in character for his role, “scruffy and dirty from doing a fight scene in the dirt”. He sat in a corner booth enjoying some time alone when a man “large enough to cast a shadow over the table towered over me and said I was sitting in his booth. He suggested, with an edge in his voice, that I vacate to make room for him and his friends.” While Norris didn’t like the tone of his voice or the implicit threat if he failed to comply, he said nothing and moved to another booth. A few minutes later some of the stunt men from the show arrived and joined Norris. As the group sat there, Norris noticed the man who threatened him staring. He then walked over to Norris’s table. Here it comes, thought Norris. A local tough out to make a name for himself by taking on Chuck Norris in a fight.

Standing at the table, the man, ignoring the others, looked directly at the actor: “You’re Chuck Norris.” Norris nodded. The man said, “You could have easily beat me up back there. Why didn’t you?” Norris responded, “What would that have proved?” The man, clearly being on the receiving end of a teachable moment, smiled, extended his hand and said, “No hard feelings.” Norris said, “None at all” and shook his hand. The actor, reflecting back on that encounter, writes, “I had avoided a confrontation, made a friend and won by losing.”

#3. Before starting into someone, start with yourself.

At some point you may conclude that it is necessary to speak with the difficult person and address issues. However, before beginning this kind of conversation, take a close look at your own motives and intentions. It’s one of Jesus’ key teachings: “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticise their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbour’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt?” (Matthew 7:3,4, The Message*).

Investigating yourself and your intentions before speaking is also highly recommended by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of The Book of Jewish Values: A Day By Day Guide To Ethical Living. He advises asking these kinds of questions before “telling someone just what it is about him or her of which you disapprove”:

  • Are my words necessary?
  • Am I being fair in my critique, or might my criticism be exagge­rated?
  • Will my words hurt the other persons’ feelings and, if so, is there a way to say them that will minimise the hurt?
  • Are my words likely to bring about a change in the other person’s behaviour?
  • How would I feel if someone criticised me in the same way?
  • How do I feel about offering the criticism? If you find yourself relishing the prospect, don’t do it. Your motives are probably insincere, and your criticism will be ineffective.

Rabbi Telushkin concludes with this reminder: “Don’t speak up until you have answered these questions adequately.”

#4. Use tactful phrases.

Our words can create harmony or hostility. That’s why it’s vital when speaking with an irritating person to use phrases that promote clarity and understanding. Here are some tactful phrases recommended by authors Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon from their book Working With Difficult People. When you disagree with someone, say, “It seems to me the problem is. . . .”, “My concern is that we may not have enough. . . .” When emotions are rising, say, “Obviously, you’re too upset to discuss this now. I’ll talk to you later. . . .”, “We won’t have to agree, but is there any reason we can’t be civil?. . .”, “You have every right to feel that way if that’s the case.” When you need to clear up confusion, say, “Perhaps I misunderstood you. Are you saying that . . . ?”, “Let me see if I understand this. Would I be correct in assuming that you feel . . . ?” And if you’re feeling pressured to act, say, “I don’t feel comfortable. . . . Don’t you think it would be a good idea to hold off until . . . ?”

#5. Apply humour.

Some offending words or acts can be modified and softened with a touch of humour. Consider this incident from the life of Louis Mountbatten, England’s last Viceroy of India. In the 1960s he was invited to appear for an interview on the Johnny Carson Show. His staff specifically informed Carson that Mountbatten would answer no questions about the Vietnam War, which was dividing America at that time. Things went smoothly for several minutes during the interview before Carson concluded by asking, “Sir, if you were President of the United States, what would you do about Vietnam?” Without becoming angry or missing a beat, Mountbatten replied, “I’d tell the British to keep their noses out of it.”

#6. Write, but don’t send, this note.

Psychologist Leonard Felder is the author of When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People. For the book he conducted a nationwide research study on difficult family members and discovered that a majority of those surveyed experience “significant tension at one or more family events each year”, especially at Christmas, Easter, weddings, birthdays, funerals and other rites of passage. Felder expected to find 30 or 40 per cent of respondents describing family gatherings as tense or unpleasant, but was surprised to find that “75 per cent of men and women have at least one family member who gets on their nerves”, with 68 per cent describing family celebrations as either “frustrating or an obligation” they don’t enjoy.

Here’s where it gets a little amusing. Felder suggests writing, but not sending, a “Thank You For Being So Unpleasant” card. He says this is a highly therapeutic, cleansing act: “Dear _____, I am so glad you are in my life. Because of you, I have seen more clearly than ever how I don’t want to treat people. You are a brilliant example of exactly what I don’t want to be like. Thank you for being an example that I will carry inside my mind and utilise for the rest of my life.” Not only does this relieve frustration, but it injects humour into an unpleasant relationship.

#7. Always be respectful.

Keep in mind that every person deserves respect and civility from you, even if you cannot like them. Here’s a lesson from wartime enemy warriors. During World War II, British prime minister Winston Churchill signed a letter sent to the Japanese ambassador in which he declared war on Japan. Churchill signed the letter of war declaration with remarkable courtesy and respect: “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S Churchill.” Later, when copies of his letter were made public, Churchill was criticised, but his response is instructive: “Some people didn’t like this ceremonial style. But after all, when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

Finally, the reality is that we can’t always choose to surround ourselves only with people whose company we enjoy; circumstances often place us in contact with those who are difficult to be with. Rather than falling into frustration and anger, strive to rise higher and respond to problematic individuals with a touch of understanding, kindness and even compassion. Acting this way generally leads to a more favourable outcome and, if not, it will at least make you a better human.


Victor Parachin is an ordained minister and the author of several books. He is a regular contributor to Signs of the Times.

* Bible verses marked The Message are used with permission from The Message, copyright 2018, Eugene H Peterson.

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