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The Secret to Avoiding Arguments With Difficult People

Managing the difficult personality requires care and specific strategies.


Interacting with difficult personalities is often frustrating or even enraging, but it is possible to learn how to manage interactions with these individuals more effectively. Before I address the way to respond to them, I must first explain the psychological makeup of these individuals.

Colloquially, we call a person “difficult” when they present a pattern of challenging social interactions. Clinically, these individuals often have what is known in the mental health field as a personality disorder. While there various types of personality disorders (e.g., borderline, narcissistic), all personality disorders have the following in common: a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning, and behaving which causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, school life, and work life.

Men and women with personality disorders have had this disordered personality orientation since the teenage or early adult years. While the cause of such a difficult personality is not known exactly, it is fair to say that these individuals had some early relationships with parents, caregivers, or other authority figures that either co-created the disturbed personality or did not provide sufficient boundaries and controls to manage the personality and prevent it from becoming so disordered.

Do most people who are difficult know that they may have a personality disorder? In a word, no. Having a personality disorder indicates that personality has become fixed with rigid psychological defenses. The extent of the rigid defenses prevents the individual from having meaningful self-awareness. Because the difficult, personality-disordered individual doesn't have self-awareness, when things go wrong, they automatically look outward and blame other people. Difficult people don't have the current ability to take full responsibility for their actions, so the relationships people with personality disorders have are always negatively impacted.

As challenging as difficult personalities can be, it is possible to interact with them in a way that does not cause extreme, unnecessary anxiety, frustration, or anger. Having strategies to avoid arguments with these individuals is crucial.

Remembering a good quote can prevent a full-blown conflict.

In preparing to write this article, I found a quote that can keep you from engaging too deeply with a difficult personality: "Never argue with someone who believes their own lies." The quote provides a stop sign when you find yourself feeling frustrated by the difficult person's refusal to see reality or to honor the most basic social conventions of fairness or mutual respect. Someone who is difficult lies to themselves in a number of ways. They may tell themselves that they never wrong and that others are to blame; they may tell themselves that blaming others is a justified response; they may tell themselves that they are trustworthy, but others are not; they may tell themselves that they are honest or act with integrity; and so forth.

Repeating this quote to yourself is a good example of using what clinicians call positive self-talk (one's running inner dialogue) in a moment of feeling provoked or triggered. Ultimately, the reason why a person shouldn't argue with someone who believes their own lies is because the difficult person is operating from an entirely different—and disturbed—playbook.

Accept that you will never "win" with a difficult person.

Men and women who are difficult have been difficult for years. Their personality underlies every work, school, or social interaction they have had for many years. The mental world of difficult people is not friendly or trusting. They can be predatory and competitive, and envy and anger are often bubbling under the surface. While a normal person enters a room full of people without extensive preconceived ideas about who those new people are, difficult people automatically start casing out the environment, trying to figure out who will be a threat or an opponent, or who will undermine or misunderstand them.

Because the social interactions difficult people have are typically filled with frustration or tension, difficult people come to see others as threats or opponents. Accordingly, they see social situations as interactions that produce either a winner or a loser. Difficult people are fixated on not feeling wrong or deficient, or being exposed publicly or personally for their weaknesses or limitations, so difficult people must end a conflict with the sense that they have won and prevailed. You will never "win" with someone whose self-esteem hinges entirely on the outcome of a conflict, so the only sanity-preserving strategy for others is to avoid engaging too deeply with them.

Think of the good, long-term relationships you have in your life (which difficult people don't have).

I tell patients of mine who deal with difficult people to think of them as living in a prison of sorts. The truth about difficult people is that they may have close relationships, but their close relationships are usually conflictual or empty (business-like or without emotion or real attachments).

Remember that your power lies in your ability to stay calm.

If you lose your cool, the difficult individual has gotten want they want out of the situation, which is to ensnare you. Difficult people don't have awareness about what's really going on with them emotionally (again, because they lack self-awareness), but they are often unhappy and in a negative mood. Unconsciously, they try to get the people around them to feel the same (negative) feelings they feel.

As soon as you recognize that the difficult person is trying to engage you, use a mental distraction technique.

Once you realize that the difficult person is being characteristically difficult and is on the brink of getting you to engage or join them in their negative feelings, distract yourself while they are talking by making mental lists. Make any of the following lists in your head which will allow you to detach from what the difficult person is saying or doing: make a list of any birthdays of friends or family in the next month; make a list of items you need at home from the market or store; or make a list of two or three things you need to clean or organize.

The takeaway message: Difficult people have a way of relating to others that often ends up frustrating those around them. In short, they have difficulty relating to others in a consistent, prosocial way. It's unrealistic to prevent all frustration with these individuals, but using these techniques can prevent you from feeling truly upset or thrown off as a result of the interaction.

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