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8 Ways to Talk to Difficult People

Ninja-level people skills to help you maintain your cool with anyone.

Key points

  • The key to successfully talking to a difficult person is effectively shutting down one's personal triggers.
  • When someone is giving unsolicited advice, blaming, or attacking, they often are really talking about themselves.
  • When a difficult person is speaking, it can help to empty one's mind of what to say and how to respond. This encourages connection.

I have an allergy to superiority.

Start talking down to me or patronizing me in a belittling tone and I can feel my blood pressure rise. My nervous system gets triggered and I have to work hard at assuring it (me) that I am safe and to please calm down because I don’t want to react and get defensive with the person who is (or whom I feel is) demeaning me (and sometimes they’re not). Getting defensive would only exacerbate the situation and I would lose a chance to learn something, my own sense of inner peace and self-confidence, or a valued relationship.

The perfect depiction of this situation is when Bruce Banner feels a threat and begins to transform into the Incredible Hulk. He leaves quite a mess behind (and completely ruins his clothes, which I can’t afford to do).

This post, then, is for anyone that has to deal with people who are difficult and who push our Hulk buttons. The key: Don’t let them win. Try these advanced people strategies instead. You could even call them ninja strategies, after the specially trained sneaky assassins. These skills are designed to help you shut down your trigger, so that you can leave a confrontation with your dignity intact.

1. It’s about them.

The first and most important thing to know is that often when someone is lecturing you—giving unsolicited advice, blaming, or attacking—they often are really talking about themselves. Before you react, imagine if what they said actually applies to them. You can even turn it around and ask them directly if they ever experienced what they're describing, or felt the way they are suggesting you feel.

2. Can you hear me?

Let’s say you’re dealing with someone who just can’t stop talking at you, and has a habit of interrupting you when you try to respond. You can hold up your hand with your index finger (not the middle one) or simply say, “I’m not finished yet; one moment please.” Or deepen your response and share, “I really hadn’t finished and when you interrupt and change the subject, I feel like you’re not interested in what I have to say.” If they are just chomping at the bit, you can listen to them, but you could also share that while you really want to listen to what they are saying, you can’t focus and truly hear them until you can finish what you were saying.

3. Make yourself heard, without advice.

Perhaps you actually do want to share with the person—but you don’t want their advice. You can deter your frustration by telling them up front that you’d like to share a story or experience without getting advice. Ask if they can just listen so you can get a few things off your chest. If the situation delves into an area where you think you’ll find disagreement from the other person, finish it with, “I’m not asking you to agree with me, but can you understand where I’m coming from?” And if you actually want someone’s advice, but also want to stake out the freedom to do what you want to do, without upsetting the other person or feeling obligated to them, be upfront about it: “I would like your opinion, yet really want to discern what I want to do, so will you give me advice even if I don’t end up following it?”

4. Be a power listener.

We’ve talked about a few things you can say, but the most essential ninja strategy is to listen. Really listen. Understand what a person is saying and what they appear to be feeling underneath the words. Then repeat it, so they know you really understand them. This single act of acknowledging what the other person says can reduce much of the friction in our communications. You don’t have to agree with the person; good listening isn’t about agreeing, only understanding the other person’s perspective. Ninja listening is about understanding another’s perspective and then compassionately relaying what you’ve heard them say. When a person feels heard and understood, they can more fully hear you, and healthy bonding occurs.

5. Let go of control.

One of the most misunderstood dynamics in a relationship is the concept of control. Maybe it comes from too much exposure to sales techniques—manipulative communication tactics such as, “The first one to speak loses,” are the enemies of successful trust-building. Deep down, people do feel manipulated by such approaches, and can respond defensively or passive-aggressively. Remember: Relationships are not win/lose. Let go of trying to control the outcome. Drop the analysis and judgment, and just listen with an open mind and heart. When the other person is speaking, empty your mind of what you want to say and how you want to respond. Good listening and understanding can’t take place when your brain is assessing, controlling, strategizing, and thinking of your own response. When you miss the opportunity to connect, the other person can feel it—and then they may become more defensive and begin operating in a win/lose communication style because they feel they are "losing" by not being heard.

6. Ninjas need boundaries, too.

The world is filled with people that desperately want to be heard, and there just aren’t enough good listeners, so you may get bombarded with people who want to tell you their problems. This can be good when it's family members or close friends. For others, set some limits. Perhaps a co-worker wants to talk to you about their personal problems (again) but you don’t really have the time or energy—plus you need to keep your focus on your work tasks. Simply respond by letting the person know that you’d really like to hear more, but have to get back to work. You can also compassionately say, “It sounds like you’ve been through a lot of pain and hurt with that. I hope you can find somebody to talk to about these things.”

7. Lasting love is about compatibility.

Our intimate relationships have an amazing ability to trigger our Hulk reactions—especially when we're mismatched. Two keys to a winning partnership are how the people in a couple communicate, and how they make repairs after a disagreement. When couples can effectively incorporate ninja listening skills and truly understand and appreciate each other’s viewpoints, they don’t try to change each other and healthy bonding takes place. Even in disagreements, love and complete acceptance trumps disagreement and repairs can be made. The problem arises when the two are mismatched with major differences in views or values or one or both parties really want to change the other. Determine if you and your partner can have great conversations and listen to each other for hours. Look past the sexual chemistry and security needs and notice if there’s a level of intolerance when they (or you) are talking, or if either of you secretly (or not so secretly) wish the other would change.

8. Use your freedom of speech.

Don’t be afraid of your feelings or to speak your truth as it occurs. One reason people get emotionally hijacked and get aggravated is that they are afraid to feel their uncomfortable feelings. They want to get along with others, so they bottle up their feelings. Perhaps they don’t share what movie they want to see, what food they want to eat, or what they want to do and instead keep giving in to the other person’s desires. What generally happens is that, like a ticking time bomb, all that built-up frustration comes out at once. Or someone deals with a person who constantly criticizes them for a dozen little things like a dripping water faucet. If the recipient doesn’t address the drips as they occur, but just muffles their anger, an explosive burst is eventually guaranteed. Voice your feelings before you can only do so in rage. Say:

  • “Sorry, I just really don’t want to eat pizza again.”
  • “I’m overloaded with work and can really use your help with the kids tonight.”
  • “I feel hurt when you point out my flaws, and I personally beat myself up about these things more than you know. Can you try offering me a bit of kindness and support? I could really use that instead.”

Life is a learning process and no one is perfect. Even the most skilled ninjas miss the mark at times. Don’t beat yourself up about it; just keep trying. It’s a practice and an art. Many times it’s about discovering our personal triggers and discreetly calming ourselves down before we react foolishly.

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