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Dealing With Difficult People Starts With Us

From their actions that anger us to your reactions that make all the difference!

In a prior blog, I offered pointers to cope with the discontented characters that we all encounter in offices, schools, families and social circles, in Keeping Spirits High When Others Drag Us Down.1 The suggestions shared are not exclusive to any one season but prove useful in our daily interactions.

When dealing with difficult others, friends or family, focus on your own reactions and less on their actions.
Source: Creatista/Shutterstock

Key to handling people’s pent-up resentments, the barbs and zingers they discharge, as well as their criticism and negative non-verbal messages is our own reactivity. Not them, but us. Essentially, how all of their process lands upon or changes us, especially…if we let them.

Days or weeks after get-togethers: Did we let them?

Did we allow difficult people or situations to get the better of us? And how can we change our own selves moving forward?

My prior blog outlined the difference between content and process, noting that people often banter about new topics (content) but that true change involves fixing how we speak or act (process).

Here’s a handy checklist to improve your interactions so that “happy new year” really does apply:

Don’t expect others to change. Work on self instead. When we set low or no expectations for others, we have a better chance of being satisfied. In addition, figure out if you're dealing with a truly ingrained personality issue. A person's behavior, over time, tells us this. If or when you discover a cluster of difficult character traits, routine logic and negotiation rarely work as I wrote in Stop Granting Free Passes to Difficult People.

What if that happiness is semi-dependent upon those in the next cubicle or part of the house? Keep reading.

Do model the change you wish to see. Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Yes, if we rise to challenges, we may well boost others along the way. Certainly, if we stoop low to poor performance and pessimism, the outlook remains less bright.

Do practice positivity. Consider the ratio of positive to negative sentiments created, whether at home, school, at work, or among friends.

It takes just as much or even less energy to put forth a smile or a caring comment than it does to sigh, frown, or impart sarcasm. Fred Rogers perhaps conveyed this best: “There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

istockphoto download/L. Oberlin
Problematic interactions can turn positive with key choices we make
Source: istockphoto download/L. Oberlin

Don’t take things personally. Watch this and other cognitive distortions, such as emotional reasoning, black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, reading other people’s minds, predicting the future, and making things catastrophes.

Need help working with thoughts and identifying automatic, irrational beliefs? Enlist help through an employee assistance program (EAP) and/or several sessions with a mental health counselor who uses cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Do be direct. Keep from forming triangles. The closest distance between two points is a straight line.

Have something to say to another person? Think of a line. When that line wobbles, it resembles two people who aren’t getting along at either end.

If we off-load to someone else—forming a triangle—our temporary relief is just that. Temporary.

Be politely direct and learn how to soft start a discussion to the person with whom you truly need to speak.

Do clean up emotional messes. In the books I’ve co-authored, there are four stages to anger: the build-up, spark, implosion, explosion (or both), and the clean-up stage.2

As I explain to clients, if we spill soda on our floors, would we leave it there? No, because it would stain, attract bugs, create a fall risk, in other words, become more of a mess.

But so often people leave angry, sticky messes wherever they occur without cleaning them up or resolving them. It’s akin to stonewalling, which we know will also undo relationships, over time.

Cool down. Use I-messages. Avoid "you" statements and "why" questions because these kick in defensiveness.

Don’t cut off from loved ones. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong. Family-systems teaches us that cutoff, one of eight principles of Bowen theory, drives more anxiety than it fixes.3

Emotional cutoff is the extreme form of distancing oneself, but this has long-term ramifications for future intimate relationships, even generations, because anxiety has less ability to be absorbed. Chronic anxiety multiplies.

Those who cutoff look for others to satisfy their connection needs. When those relationships become tense, especially if people do not work on improving self, the same interpersonal problems erupt.

Copyright @ 2020 by Loriann Oberlin. All rights reserved.

Part One to This Blog: Keeping Spirits High


1. Oberlin, L. Keeping Holiday Spirits High When Others Drag Us Down:

2. Murphy, T. and Oberlin, L. (2016). Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness. Boston: DaCapo Press.

3. Gilbert, R. (2018). The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory. Lake Frederick, VA: Leading Systems Press.