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How You Can Get Along with People You Really Don’t Like

Research points toward a path to common ground.

Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock
Source: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

You may hate to admit it, but there are just some people you just don’t like all that much. This is fine if you can stay away from those people, but what if there’s no avoiding them? Perhaps there’s a coworker who rubs you the wrong way, yet you are forced to share an office, have neighboring cubicles, or work together on joint projects. Or there could be a relative such as a cousin or in-law whom you would never choose to spend time with. However, at family gatherings you’ve got no choice but to be in the same room or even sit at the same table. In your volunteer or community work, you’re on a committee that you very much enjoy and feel a strong sense of commitment. But there’s that one person who, no matter what, irritates you so much that you’d rather stay home in order to avoid his or her presence.

The usual rules for getting along with people may not apply when those people are ones who you know, or think, will cause your blood pressure to skyrocket. Normally, you can handle a person who bugs you by either staying away or working to keep your interactions as short as possible. When these are people who aren’t likely to disappear soon, or quickly, you’re stuck with the dilemma of keeping things on an even keel as much as possible despite your resentment.

One trick you might hope would work is to try to think the best of someone and put a positive spin on what the person says and does. Your in-law might not mean to imply that you’re not as smart as your spouse or partner; your coworker may not deliberately sabotage your efforts to get through a meeting in as professional a manner as possible. It’s just that, unfortunately, these problematic situations seem to develop almost on their own. It’s also possible that these annoying individuals are deliberately trying to set you up, and your reaction is perfectly understandable given the circumstances. Even so, the unpleasant feelings that develop still get in the way of your ability to get what you want to out of the situations. Being provoked may also cause you to get so angry that it’s you, not the other person, who ends up looking bad.

The research on factors that can help you overcome your dislike for someone else that seems to have the most relevance comes from the laboratory of University of Groningen psychologist Melvyn Hamstra and colleagues, specifically a study published in 2013. The idea behind the study is that of regulatory fit, meaning how much energy you’re willing to put into what you’re doing. Generally, if you like something, you’re willing to put more energy into it—but you could also put an equal amount of energy into staying away from something you dislike. Therefore, if you like someone, you’d try as hard as possible to devote yourself to being with that person but if your feelings are the opposite, you’ll try just as hard to avoid that person as much as you can.

The researchers distinguished between two types of focus when you’re putting your energies into an activity. In the promotion focus, you seek to realize your goals and desires, achieving an idealized outcome. In the prevention focus, conversely, you try to do what you “ought” to do and stay away from anything that will keep you from allowing that to happen. You’ll experience regulatory fit when things feel right to you, and the focus of what you’re being asked to do fits the focus of what you wish to do.

The situation that the Hamstra and colleagues team used for their study involved having participants read letters of application from a hypothetical candidate for a job. The candidate either took a promotion focus, emphasizing how much he or she wants a job that involves challenge and responsibility, or a prevention focus, in which the candidate emphasized wanting jobs that require diligence and attention to detail. Participants with a strong promotion focus should like the first applicant and those who adopt a prevention focus should like the second, more conventional, applicant. The match between participant focus and the nature of the letter should, further, stimulate greater interest and motivation toward the applicant.

As noted by Hamstra et al., our usual bias toward people we don’t know is to start out with the default assumption that we will like them. This, in and of itself, is an interesting observation. In case you tend toward the more cynical end of the initial liking spectrum, it may be hard for you to believe that most people have this positive likability bias. Even so, all other things being equal, most of us do seem willing to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt. This observation provides some basis for the saying that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and it’s why you may find it harder and harder, over time, to like the people you should but just can’t.

In a series of studies in which participants read applicant letters that stressed either promotion ("I want to succeed") or prevention ("I want to fit in"), Hamstra and his colleagues found that the overwhelming tendency was for regulatory fit to produce greater liking of a potential applicant. The regulatory fit itself was, as I noted above, more likely to occur when promotion-oriented people read promotion-oriented letters and prevention types read prevention-oriented letters. In other words, you’ll feel a stronger likeness pull toward people you see as having a similar orientation as yourself, and a stronger dislikeness push away from those who don’t match your own orientation.

Now we can return to the original question: How to get along better with people you don’t like, but have no way to extricate yourself from interacting with.

The Hamstra et al. study suggests that you first tune into the dimension of your personality that represents a lack of fit with the target of your disdain. The individual may not be a bad person, but just someone whose personality doesn’t fit your own. You’re a pessimist and this person is an eternal optimist. Or you’re outgoing and relaxed, and this person seems uptight and reserved. The Hamstra findings also suggest that the more of a mismatch there is, the more strongly your venom will flow toward this person.

Recognizing the subjective nature of your reaction to the person you don’t “like” can become the first step toward seeking a common ground. Talking through your differences, perhaps in the presence of a third party, could help both of you figure out how to not only agree to differ, but to form the yin to each other’s yang. You may not end up as best friends, but you can at least learn to respect, and ultimately work, in the face of your differences. Fulfillment in daily life depends on many factors; getting along with those who are different can become one more way to enhance yours.

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Hamstra, M. W., Van Yperen, N. W., Wisse, B., & Sassenberg, K. (2013). Like or dislike: Intrapersonal regulatory fit affects the intensity of interpersonal evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(4), 726-731. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.03.002

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016