We all know Big-D difficult when it saunters into a room. Difficult people are the bullies and whimperers who must be spoon-fed feedback that's been purged of negative content, so explosive or "sensitive" are they. In our June cover story The High Art of Handling Difficult People, Hara Estroff Marano discusses how to handle these human tripwires.
Then there's little-d difficult, a club with much broader membership. Such people generally play well with others, but they've got one or two people in whose presence they behave badly, or, more often, people on whom they negatively fixate. I'm thinking of the grown-up who devolves into a petulant toddler in the company of Mom, or the person who is uncharacteristically curt with certain people. If you’re consistently annoyed by (and annoying to) a select few—congratulations, you’re human. Knowing the person or situation that sets you off is half the battle.
Family: Home is the center of our universe and seat of our hearts, yet too often we rezone it as an emotional dumping ground. Once the parameters of our most intimate relationships are set, expectations emerge and a family member (usually spouse or mom) exists to meet our own needs. This erodes love and patience. Hara's written about these outsized expectations, as well.
Friends If you have just one or two friends who are never sufficiently attentive or somehow let you down, question why they’re coming in for this special treatment. Sure, it could be them. But it could also be that you are placing demands on them that reflect your desires for the friendship, rather than its realities. By privately and unilaterally setting the terms, you may create conditions for a relationship that almost by definition cannot be met. This might seem like it is the provenance of high school girls' locker rooms, but people of all ages and professions make telltale statements such as:
"Do you think my e-mail went through? I don't understand why I haven't heard back from X." or:
"I'm furious that X cancelled on me tonight."
People unconsciously place demands on friends who enhance their own self-image or social identity; it is these friends who are likely to "disappoint" in a friendship. Check out the work of Carolyn Weisz and Lisa F. Wood in Friendship: The Laws of Attraction, for more on this idea. That we disproportionately value friends who make us feel good about ourselves may sound Machiavellian, but we are creatures with many self-serving biases.
That Random Colleague You Always Want to Avoid The default style between two people who have little in common is neutrality. But if you find yourself irritated or negative in minor exchanges with someone you barely know, you may believe that person is wasting your time, and you don’t know how to extricate yourself. The result is a rude or avoidant exchange, rather than an assertive one. You may legitimately be up against a difficult person––Bob Sutton has a funny post on assertively handling difficult time-wasters, (note that there are punctuation clues that you're in the email presence of Big-D Difficult!). No matter the personalities involved, one can extricate oneself by being firm and friendly.
How to know whether you’re the occasional offender or Big-D difficult? Here's a quiz by Gretchen Rubin via Bob Sutton. There's also the classic folk psychology test: If you’re concerned enough to ponder this question, you probably don’t have much to worry about.