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5 Rules for Dealing With Difficult People

4. Don't overpersonalize.

Key points

  • The most effective way to respond to a difficult person is to first observe one's own emotional and physical reactions.
  • A common problem that occurs when communicating with difficult people is forgetting the desired goal of the interaction.
  • Mentally rehearsing an upcoming conversation with a difficult person can lower one's chance of saying something reactive that will make it worse.

Lately, as more and more organizations are requiring at least a partial return to the office, it seems that many folks are struggling with being back around people who they were all too happy to get their distance from while working from home. And it's not just my individual clients I'm hearing this from. I've recently had several requests for coaching and training sessions for organizations to help their employees communicate better and manage their interactions. After two years of separation, many are finding it quite stressful to be back in an office environment with those they find difficult.

When anticipating an interaction with a so-called difficult person, there are several important components to keep in mind. Read on for tools that will help keep you from making the situation worse.

1. To de-escalate, learn to master the pause.

Conflicts with difficult people can easily become a vicious cycle when our own reactions escalate the situation. And the more intensified the conflict, the more that we will dread and be stressed by the idea of future interactions, which begins the whole cycle over again. So, your goal in any situation that raises your hackles should be to make sure you don't make it worse.

The most effective tool to make sure you aren't escalating a situation is to become adept at pausing and being a keen observer of your own emotional and physical reactions. Before responding to someone who has upset you, notice: What is my body feeling? Are my thoughts racing? Am I about to speed right into a trap, saying something inflammatory that I will be blamed for later?

Even just making a habit of waiting five seconds before speaking when you are in a conflict can help keep you from doing further damage.

2. Always keep your desired outcome in mind.

Another common problem in our interactions with difficult people is that we get distracted by our upset and lose sight of the goals we are trying to accomplish. When you are forced to interact with someone who is being difficult, it's very easy to get off track ("Can you believe what a jerk this person is?") and end up leaving the interaction no closer to what we were hoping to accomplish.

Instead, remembering what goal you are after—resolving a specific issue, getting an answer to a question, getting clarity on something confusing, putting in an official request for something to be done—can help you make sure that you stay on track and are as close as possible to reaching your goals.

3. When possible, rehearse in advance.

Difficult people can be particularly adept at throwing us off our game by getting an emotional rise out of us. Just like a musician, actor, or athlete is more likely to nail a difficult performance if they have practiced, so too can practice and rehearsal help our most stressful interpersonal moments.

Don't be afraid to script a difficult conversation, knowing of course that there will need to be some wiggle room built-in. Even better, by rehearsing in advance, you can come up with wording that is less likely to escalate the situation (like optimally using "I" statements to describe your feelings—think "I was frustrated when you didn't meet this deadline because it created extra work for me," rather than, "You always are late with assignments!")

4. Don't overpersonalize.

Often, the hardest interpersonal interactions are the ones where we take things too personally and feel wounded or insulted by another person's behavior when really it has nothing to do with us at all.

Observe your thoughts for distortions that make the situation more about you than it really is, or that needlessly catastrophize the outcome of a situation. Of course, very few of us aren't bothered at least somewhat by the idea of someone being actively upset with us or not liking us. But when a difficult person shows consistent patterns of dysfunction across situations and with different people, there is limited control we can have over their behavior—and it only adds needless worry and heartache to blame ourselves.

5. A little self-awareness and empathy go a long way.

Of course, in any discussion of how to manage interactions with difficult people, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that some of us are the difficult people—often without knowing it. So, it may be helpful to reflect upon your behavior, especially if you see these patterns of difficult interactions across separate circumstances in your life.

Whether you are doing things to escalate the situation or your body language, tone or wording is making you come across more aggressively than you intended, it may help to try to boost your self-awareness by looking for patterns of your own. And finally, even if it is always the other person being difficult, it can sometimes lessen the frustration to send some empathy their way. Sometimes people who have been hurt the most, or who are depressed, suffering a trauma, or just not getting adequate support in their life, can come across as villains—when indeed any of us might have their same conduct (or worse!) if we were thrust into their life circumstances.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Just Life/Shutterstock

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