The Secret to Dealing With Difficult People

When discussion and compromise don't work.

Posted Nov 03, 2015

Is there someone in your life who always seems to take things in the most negative way possible?  Who is emotionally unpredictable?  Who seems unable to compromise and consider other people's needs? Do you find yourself tensing up when certain people walk into a staff meeting, a holiday celebration, or a neighborhood event?

Managing relationships with difficult people is one of the most common questions I get from friends, family members, students, and colleagues. In psychological terms, some (perhaps most) of these people would meet criteria for one of the personality disorders, such as Narcissistic, Borderline, Obsessive-Compulsive or Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Although there are many different types of personality disorders, they all involve fairly rigid and inflexible ways of dealing with the world that often cause problems not just for the person but also for those around them. There are other psychological problems too, such as Dysthymia (chronic, low-grade depression), that also have major impacts on interpersonal relationships. 

Some of them are, at least in part, responses to early childhood trauma. As small children, we have few coping choices and sometimes people continue doing what they did to survive childhood trauma, even though as adults they now have more coping options available to them.

Some people with these problems are very unhappy and cannot find a way to get to a better place. Unfortunately, many of these psychological problems are among the most difficult to treat. Others seem to think it is the rest of the world who has a problem and do not seem very motivated to change. Either way, if someone like that is part of your life, it might still leave you wondering, "Now what?"

In a completely fair and just world, we wouldn't have to adjust our lives or routines because of demanding and unreasonable people. However, just as you take steps to avoid other kinds of problems and dangers, sometimes we have to take steps to protect ourselves from difficult people. 

If you find yourself in that situation, consider these 3 strategies:  distance, delay, and deny.

All three of these strategies are alternatives to direct confrontation. My husband, Al Bardi, who is also a clinical psychologist, and I came up with this list of strategies some years ago. Before you adopt these strategies, it is important to know the difference between reasonable demands and unreasonable demands. These are for unreasonable demands. Sometimes airing out problems and conflicts between two people is great. That's a core strategy of psychology. 

Assertively and directly raising an issue is usually a good idea only if you have reason to believe that the other person is capable of seeing your point of view and willing to change. If that's not the case, even the best assertive behaviors can make a situation worse, not better. If someone is too unstable or rigid to discuss a problem calmly and work jointly towards a situation that makes both parties happier, you may need a more indirect approach.


Poor psychological and emotional boundaries are one common challenge when dealing with difficult people. You may experience them as very intrusive and demanding. In these situations, working to establish clearer boundaries—probably working harder than usual to make boundaries—is one strategy. 

Think about physical distance first. It is an extreme step in some cases, but for example it is one reason why battered women often relocate to a new town. Although sometimes even that doesn't work, it will work in many cases.

However, physical distance doesn't have to involve moving to a new town. It can also mean steps such as changing your routine. For example, going to the gym in the morning instead of the evening, or attending a different service at your church. I've known numerous people, including many other psychologists, who have switched to a different unit at a larger hospital or changed departments at a university. 

Even smaller steps to create distance can be useful. If you are signing up for projects at work or who will bring the snacks to your child's soccer game, try to avoid signing up with that person. Explore a different walking path in your neighborhood. 

There are still more subtle ways to create distance. Even reducing eye contact and refraining from smiling are ways to create emotional distance without creating a confrontation.


"I'll call you" has become a cliché of avoidance, along with "let's do lunch." A lot of times people complain about the insincerity of such statements and they can certainly be overused or callously used, but these and similar tactics are effective ways to reduce your contact with people who are unstable or hurtful.  

Personally, I stick to phrases that are more truthful, such as "I'll have to check my schedule," or "I'm not sure right now when I'll have time." In the rural South where I live, you can pretty much always say "I'll need to see what my family's plans are," and everyone will understand that doesn't just mean your spouse and children (if you have them), it means your whole kin network. 

Variations on those can be used in almost any setting, but there are site-specific ones too, such as "I'll need to clear my desk of a few projects before I can take on something new." Another one that is often true for me is: "Some of my other responsibilities are taking more time than I anticipated." These can also be adapted to due dates for exams and papers if you are a student. Sometimes you may need to communicate to people that it's not ok to call in the middle of the night or on holidays, etc., and say that you cannot take that time away from your family. 

In addition to being more truthful, the other difference in comments such as these is that they put the focus on outside limitations. The problem with "I'll call you" is that it suggests that you want to call someone. Referring to family obligations or work demands indicates that your time is not entirely your own, which is probably true.

Less contact often means that the emotional intensity of a relationship will get dialed down. One effective way to get less contact is to spread it out. 


Some people who struggle with selfish or hurtful impulses might accuse you of being the one who is being selfish or hurtful, by avoiding them. In these cases it is usually best to stick to the issue of external demands. Hopefully, it is not actually true that you are trying to be selfish or hurtful by not giving them the time or attention that they think they "need." (Again, assuming we are talking about situations where there is no true need. Your own toddler needs to be cared for no matter how unreasonable they get sometimes!)

Assuming that you don't want to be hurtful, sometimes the best solution is to say as little as possible and just focus on issues such as scheduling and family obligations. If you don't have any hurtful intent, then it should be easy to deny having any. It is also common and completely normal to have ambivalent feelings about difficult people in your lives. In that case, if you have decided that airing out problems is not likely to help (or you already tried it and you know it doesn't help), then focusing on the more positive aspects of your feelings and intentions is often the wisest path.

Distance, delay and deny are not particularly enjoyable, but they can be effective means of minimizing the impact of unstable, hurtful, or difficult people in your lives.

The Data Doctor

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The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.