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“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”

— Paramhansa Yogananda

Most of us encounter confrontational and hostile people at some points in our lives. These individuals may exist in our personal sphere or professional environment. On the surface, they may come across as domineering, demanding, or even abusive. However, with astute approach and assertive communication, you may turn aggression into cooperation, and coercion into respect.

Reasons for unwarranted confrontational and hostile behavior are many and often complex. Causes may include and are not limited to pathological anger, hyper-aggression, pathological bullying, narcissistic rage, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma, substance abuse, and life crisis. In some cases it’s just a normal person having a bad day. In others you may be dealing with a sociopath or psychopath.

Regardless of the reason, it’s important to respond proactively and effectively when your rights, interests and safety are at stake. Below are nine keys to dealing with confrontational and hostile people, with excerpts from my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People”. Not all of these ideas may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.

1.  Keep Safe

The most important priority in the face of a confrontational and hostile individual is to protect yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, leave. Seek help and support if necessary. Contact law enforcement if you have to. Should you decide to deal with the aggressor, consider the following skills and strategies.

2.  Keep Your Distance and Keep Your Options Open

Not all confrontational and hostile individuals are worth tasseling with. Your time is valuable, and your happiness and well-being important. Unless there’s something important at stake, don’t expend yourself by trying to grapple with a person who’s negatively entrenched. Whether you’re dealing with an angry driver, a pushy relative, or a domineering supervisor, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engagement unless you absolutely have to.

There are times when you may feel like you’re “stuck” with a very difficult person, and there’s “no way out.” In these situations, think outside the box. Consult with trusted friends and advisors about different courses of action, with your personal well-being as the number one priority. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.

3.  Keep Your Cool and Avoid Escalation

One of the most common characteristics of confrontational and hostile individuals is that they project their aggression to push your buttons and keep you off balance. By doing so, they create an advantage from which they can exploit your weaknesses.

If you are required to deal with a difficult individual, one of the most important rules of thumb to keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation.

When you feel upset with or challenged by someone, before you say or do something you might later regret, take a deep breath and count slowly to ten. In many instances, by the time you reach ten, you would have regained composure, and figured out a better response to the issue, so that you can reduce, instead of exacerbate the problem. If you're still upset after counting to ten, take a time out if possible, and revisit the issue after you calm down. If necessary, use phrases such as “this is not a good time for me to talk…,” or “let’s deal with this after we cool off…” to buy yourself time. By maintaining self-control, you leverage more power to manage the situation.

4.  Depersonalize and Shift from Reactive to Proactive

“Don't take anything personally…What others say and do is a projection of their own reality…When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.”

— Miguel Angel Ruiz

Being mindful about the nature of confrontational and hostile people can help us de-personalize the situation, and turn from being reactive to proactive.
One effective way to de-personalize is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, even for just a moment. For example, consider the offender you’re dealing with, and complete the sentence: “It must not be easy…”  

“My friend is so aggressive. It must not be easy to come from an environment where everyone was forced to compete…”

“My manager is really overbearing. It must not be easy to deal with his multiple issues at work and in personal life…”

“This customer representative is so rude. It must not be easy to harbor negative energy all day long…”

To be sure, empathetic statements do not excuse aggressive behavior. The point is to remind yourself that most chronically confrontational and hostile people suffer within, and mindfulness of their struggles can help you handle them with more detachment and equanimity.

5.  Know Your Fundamental Human Rights

A crucial idea to keep in mind when you’re dealing with a difficult person is to know your rights, and recognize when they’re being violated.

As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand-up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. Following are some of our fundamental human rights:

You have the right to be treated with respect.

You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants.

You have the right to set your own priorities.

You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.

You have the right to get what you pay for.

You have the right to have opinions different than others.

You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally.

You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.

The Fundamental Human Rights are grounded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laws in many democratic nations protecting against abuse, exploitation, and fraud, and, if you’re in the United States, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

These Fundamental Human Rights represent your boundaries.

Of course, our society is full of people who do not respect these rights. Confrontational and hostile individuals, in particular, want to deprive you of your rights so they can control and take advantage of you. But you have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the offender, who’s in charge of your life. Focus on these rights, and allow them to keep your cause just and strong.

6.  Utilize Assertive and Effective Communication

As mentioned above, avoid interacting with aggressors unless you absolutely have to. When you are required to deal with one, strengthen your position by utilizing assertive communication skills. In my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People”, you'll learn eight ways to say “no” diplomatically but firmly, sixteen tips to reduce or eliminate aggressive behavior, and ten keys to successfully negotiate with highly difficult people.

7.  Consider Intervention in Close Relationship

Oftentimes, an individual who is chronically confrontational and hostile simply isn't being her or himself. As indicated earlier, any number of reasons including life crisis, brain trauma (from auto accident, head injury, sports injury, prescription drug side-effects, etc.), post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and other factors may significantly affect one’s mood and behavior. Medical and/or mental health support may be needed to halt the individual from relational ruin and self-destruction. If the person in question is someone close and important to you, ask whether he or she is open to receiving professional help. Should you encounter resistance, consider asking someone whom the aggressor holds in high regard to assist you in an intervention.

8.  Stand Up to Bullies (Safely)

The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker, so as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. Many bullies are also cowards on the inside. When their victims begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.

On an empathetic note, studies show that many bullies are victims of violence themselves. This in no way excuses bullying behavior, but may help you consider the bully in a more equanimous light.

“When people don't like themselves very much, they have to make up for it. The classic bully was actually a victim first.”

— Tom Hiddleston

 “I realized that bullying never has to do with you. It's the bully who's insecure.”

— Shay Mitchell

When standing up to bullies (in situations where something important is at stake), be sure to place yourself in a position where you can be safe, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of the bully’s inappropriate behavior. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, consult with counseling, legal, law enforcement, or administrative professionals on the matter. It’s very important to stand up to bullies, and you don’t have to do it alone.

9.  Set Consequences to Compel Respect and Cooperation

When a confrontational and hostile individual insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence.

The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to "stand down" a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the offending individual, and compels him or her to shift from violation to respect. In my book (click on title) “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, & Controlling People”, consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect positive change.

In conclusion, to know how to handle confrontational and hostile people is to truly master the art of communication. As you utilize these skills, you may experience less grief, greater confidence, better relationships, and higher communication prowess. You are on your way to leadership success!

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Also available (click on title):

How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions

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Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to commsuccess@nipreston.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.

© 2015 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution. 

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Akert, R.M., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T.D. Social Psychology; 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. (2010)

Albert, D.J.; Walsh, M.L.; Jonik, R.H. Aggression in Humans: What is Its Biological Foundation?. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 17. (1993)

Amen, Daniel G. Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Three River Press. (1999)

Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology. (2002)

Berkowitz, L. Aggression: Its Causes, Consequences, and Control. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (1993)

Bloom, Sandra L. M.D. When Victims Turn Into Bullies. The Psychotherapy Review. (2000)

Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6 (1987)

Carr-Ruffino, Norma. The Promotable Woman. Career Pr Inc; 4th ed. (2004)

French, J. R. and Raven, B. The Basics of Social Power. 1n D. Cartwright (ed) Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (1959)

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. (2006)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). United Nations General Assembly. (1948)

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