Everyone is going to come across people in their life that are just difficult to deal with. There are many different kinds of difficult people, and in order to have a healthy mindset and not let these kinds of people bring you down or derail you from your goals, it is helpful to be able to identify these kinds of people and learn how to manage their personalities.
Difficult people can make it harder to stay positive and get things accomplished, and they can occupy more of your mental energy than they deserve. In order to combat these kinds of people, you need to first identify what kind of personality you are dealing with, and then have a strategy to cope with them when they come your way.
First, understand that difficult people are the way that they are because they have learned that behaving in a certain way works in their favor in one way or another. Being difficult may mean that others do not criticize them, or that they get their way more often. They may have found that attacking others helps them avoid being attacked themselves, or they may feel more powerful when others acquiesce to their demands. Whatever their reason, they are usually immune to the normal ways of communicating with others because they have found a method that helps them feel better about themselves or get more of what they want.
Next, make sure you know what NOT to do when dealing with difficult people:
- DON’T take their behavior personally. Other people’s behavior is always about them, it’s not about you. Chances are they treat everyone this way, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are being personally attacked, even if it seems that way.
- DON’T try to mimic their behavior or beat them at their own games. This will usually add fuel to the fire and just stimulate more conflict. Moreover, difficult people can be very manipulative and could use your actions against you. This tactic rarely turns out well.
- DON’T try to appease them by trying to make them happy all the time to avoid conflict. Difficult people will tire of you when they figure out you won’t fall for their games, but if you feed them what they want, they will always come up with more demands to make.
- DON’T try to change them by rationalizing or appealing to their empathy. You cannot change others, you can only change yourself and how you respond to people and situations.
- DON’T give up. You will get better in time with dealing with difficult people when you become more confident in yourself and your abilities. This is about not giving up on yourself. You are free to give up on trying to change difficult people, though.
Finally, here are some tips to deal with a few different kinds of difficult people:
- Negative Complainers: Complainers are people who have a hard time trying to find the positive in anything. When they get something good, they find a way to find fault with it. When they receive a compliment, they shoot it down. These kinds of people can be exhausting to deal with because they constantly need other people to prop them up and boost their ego. They typically do not have much confidence in themselves, and they use other people to make up for this by constantly requiring the people around them to make up for their negativity. To deal with this kind of person, avoid arguing with them about their own terrible outlook. Instead, respond with something like “It’s too bad you feel that way. When I feel like that I usually try to look for the positive”. Don’t give them the solutions. This reinforces their behavior. Instead, turn their negativity around by encouraging them to come up with their own solutions. If they can’t, just repeat that it is unfortunate that they feel so stuck.
- Aggressive People: Aggressive people try to intimidate others into doing what they want. This usually serves to keep attention off of them so that they don’t have to change. They expect that others will be intimidated into silence or will respond back with aggression, which helps them avoid responsibility. The approach to take with these people is to stay calm, refuse to be intimidated, and remain assertive with your viewpoint. When you remain calm while they are losing their cool, they end up looking like the crazy person, and you look rational and level. They will eventually run out of steam, or get frustrated with their inability to make you break your calm, and they will have to calm down. The key here is not to let their behavior influence yours. I know it will feel difficult, but this is why you will gain the upper hand eventually. When others learn that they can’t bully you, they will eventually stop trying. However, there may be times when you need to set boundaries by saying something like “I’m not going to engage further in this conversation until you are able to remain calm. I’ll talk to you later.” Then, end it. Refuse to engage further until they stop the aggressive behavior.
- Snipers: Snipers are similar to aggressive people, but they use more subtle messaging and methods to attack you. They tend to be hostile and they make people uncomfortable by making snarky remarks, sarcasm, disapproving facial expressions, and other innuendoes to try and intimidate people. This makes them feel more powerful and boosts their ego because inside they are actually insecure and need to make others feel small in order to feel good about themselves. The way to combat this kind of person is two-fold. One way is direct confrontation. This requires that you are confident in yourself and your assertive skills. You might say something like “That comment sounds like you’re making fun of me, and I don’t appreciate it”. Some people will be so shocked by your ability to pull this off that it will stop their behavior. Another approach with this kind of person is the “kill ‘em with kindness” approach. No matter how rude and nasty they are, just respond with kindness and sincerity. Sometimes this approach works because kindness is disarming. It is hard for most people to be unkind to someone who is always kind to them. This won’t work with everyone, so choose your approach wisely. This is not about being fake, it’s actually about being sincere. If you approach all people with love no matter who they are or how they treat you, you are being true to your own values, if those are your values. The kindness approach works for me personally, because it is literally just easier for me to be kind to others than to be snarky, but that’s just my personality. I’m good at being assertive too when I need to be, but kindness is my default, so that’s where I often try to start.
- Avoiders/Silent People: Some people do not have the assertive skills to deal with confrontation in a healthy way, so they will avoid you when they are upset, or they will use passive tactics such as giving you sullen looks, or respond to your questions with “I don’t know” or “Nothing’s wrong”. These people can be hard to deal with because they require a lot of your emotional labor to figure out what is wrong, or they require you to be the one to fix things all the time when there is a conflict. These people get away with not doing the work to fix problems by not talking or refusing to act. It works because other people who are uncomfortable with silence or tension will do the work to fix things. The approach to take with these people is not to play into their avoidance. The sooner you confront the issue, the better. If you know what the issue is, ask questions that can’t be avoided, such as “I can see that you’re upset, so let’s talk about what just happened”. Calling them out on their behavior right away in an assertive but friendly tone can help resolve problems so they do not fester. If, however, they refuse to engage or talk, then let it go and ignore all further behaviors. If you try to talk to someone and they will not engage, then they just have to sit with their frustration and silence because they made that choice. You do not have to continue to try and coax them into talking or go through enormous effort to cheer them up or get them to talk to you. Choose to go on with your life or your day and do not take responsibility for the inaction or avoidance that others choose. When they see that their mood is not going to ruin yours, it becomes less effective to avoid talking.
You will not always get the outcomes you want when dealing with difficult people. As stated before, you cannot change other people, you can only change how you react to them. But difficult people do not have to ruin your mood, your day, or your life if you choose not to let them. There may be some situations you cannot avoid, such as when you have a toxic boss or a family member that likes to ruin Thanksgiving. But remember that your power lies in you being in control of your own behavior and your own reactions, and living true to your own values.