Difficult People 101, Part 4: Coping with Difficult People

Part 4 of the Difficult People Series

Posted Jul 12, 2012

Part of a multi-part series on difficult people and situations.  

Difficult People part 1:  The DP Challenge
Difficult People part 2:  The Eightfold Path of Dealing with Difficult People
DP part 3:  21 practical tips for dealing with difficult people
DP part 4:  Coping with difficult people
DP part 5:  Road Rage to Road Sage

July 12, 2012

So you’re stuck with the brown-bag lunch of difficult emotions.  What do you do?

Difficult people and situations usually trigger anger in us. So we must become very skilled at dealing with anger.  Be curious about anger — try to understand why it arises, and how it affects you and others.  Typically, anger results from a slight or injury. When we feel injured or threatened, or someone/something we care about seems injured or threatened, or our needs aren’t being met, our brains kick into “Fight or Flight” survival mode. Anger can point us to important issues or core values.  It can also be misdirected. Sometimes, it becomes more harmful to ourselves and the people we interact with than the situation that provoked it in the first place. 

  1. Learn how to soothe yourself. Ideally, learn how to soothe others as well. Usually, that starts with empathizing with their anger.
  2. Give yourself a time-out from difficult situations and distract yourself. 
  3. Slow down (the advanced cortex takes at least twice as long to respond as the quick-acting “reptilian” survival brain). 
  4. Get support.
  5. Understand yourself and your most important needs.
  6. Pick your battles and remember the bigger picture.

In the social/political context, feeling powerless against the dictates of others triggers fear and anger. The I Ching cautions us to be wary of “treading on the tiger’s tail”, and there are times to avoid getting on the bad side of authorities such as employers and administrators. Sometimes, the best advice is to “get out of Dodge” — find a new job or avoid the too-difficult situations. But there are times we have to face down difficult people and situations, because the stakes are just too important. You have to pick your battles, and pick how you’re going to fight, but sometimes, there will indeed be battles, internal and external. If you take the time to understand the situation from your “opponent’s” perspective, and even walk a mile in their shoes, you may be able to find a creative way to bridge the gap. If you assert yourself appropriately, you may be able to gain their respect and win their support on later issues. But it’s important to know when you’re dealing with someone with more serious control or other issues, and strategize accordingly.

Soothing yourself with lovingkindness

I advise beginning with a practice from Buddhism: metta, or lovingkindness meditation. In this practice, one begins with extending metta towards oneself. After you firmly establish a loving and kind attitude towards yourself in daily practice — this may take many months, at 45 minutes a day — you extend this attitude towards others. First, towards your teachers or benefactors.  Then, towards your beloved friends. Then, towards neutral people. Next, towards difficult people.  Finally, towards all beings. I find that when times get difficult, it is important to return to metta practice (especially towards oneself) to encourage kindness and friendliness in thought and deed.

The specific metta phrase I recommend is (from Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart):

May I be filled with lovingkindness,

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease,

May I be happy.

Then substitute “you” for “I” as you extend metta to others.  I recommend doing 15-45 minutes of metta practice a day for as long as you need to, and booster sessions thereafter. You will find that the metta phrases may come to you in moments of stress, as you’re drifting off to sleep, or waiting in line. They will become part of you, and you deserve that. It is your natural birthright to have lovingkindness and compassion for yourself.  Metta is the foundation of mental health as well as a good society.

Another option is imagining the lovingkindness coming from some person in your life, or an ideal figure such as Buddha, God, Christ, etc.  Imagine that person saying “May you be filled with lovingkindness, May you be well, etc.”  Whichever method you choose, the goal is to nurture yourself with lovingkindness and cultivate and generate that emotion internally. Sometimes it takes months of practice towards oneself before one is ready to extend it to others. The mind often kicks up resistance to lovingkindness — working through this resistance can be quite informative and helpful.

This may seem soft-hearted, impractical or sentimental, but I’ve found it to be essential in reducing suffering. By working with the heart, by opening the heart, you can unlock a wellspring of happiness, tenderness, joy and interpersonal creativity. This must be combined with a wise understanding of oneself and others, and skills at managing conflict and differences of opinion.  Ultimately, the DP is a human being too. Effectively managing your interaction with them is of paramount importance, but being able to send them a little vibe of compassion might actually shift the relationship as well.

If you can avoid difficult people, more power to you. But this is impossible in most workplace situations, or in situations such as politics, where ideologies, goals, and personalities are bound to cause friction. With a deeper understanding of yourself and the forces at work in society (or in your family or workplace), you can weather conflicts with increasing security and confidence.

What to do if you’ve been hurt by a difficult person or situation

  1. Your safety and sanity come first
  2. Get support, advice and mentorship, as appropriate. 
  3. Soothe yourself. 
  4. Try to learn from the situation. 
  5. If you were in the wrong, admit it and apologize.
  6. “Cultivate an internal attitude when the externals are lacking” (the I Ching).
  7. Weather the storm and/or pick your battles.
  8. Allow for the possibility of forgiveness — letting go of your own bitterness, resentment, hostility and grudges — but be aware that this doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be a doormat for abuse.
  9. Encourage forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and even redemption. 

We have all been injured in some way by the actions and inactions of others.  The only way we can be whole is to be a healing force in the world.

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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