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You Stress Me Out!

A four-step strategy for dealing with difficult people.

Dealing with someone who is difficult for us can be very stressful. If the person is someone with whom we have to interact often — a sibling, a co-worker, the boss, our mother-in-law — we are frequently gearing our bodies to a stressful response. (Think “fight or flight.”)

The Franklin Institute Resource for the Sciences reports on its website: “As science gains greater insight into the consequences of stress on the brain, the picture that emerges is not a pretty one. A chronic overreaction to stress overloads the brain with powerful hormones that are intended only for short-term duty in emergency situations. Their cumulative effect damages and kills brain cells.”

So, the stress we experience when we can’t get along with others (and our blood pressure goes up) is affecting our minds and critical thinking as well. This is a fascinating perspective. When I react to someone else that I have difficulty dealing with and react negatively, my thinking may be faulty due to the stress caused.

This is a little bit like the snowball gathering snow and getting bigger as it rolls down the mountain. The process goes like this: I find the person difficult, thinking about interacting with them stresses me, my mind might not function as clearly and confidently, I react to them from a less-than-optimal state, and then the difficult cycle continues.

Instead of having the stress reaction to people we find difficult, what can we do? We know the symptoms — a knot in our stomach, a bad taste in our mouth, a dread of what the person will say or do, or a desire to run anywhere else so we don’t have to deal with them. The triggers are noticeable, and we know when we are moving into that fight-or-flight mode.

Next time it happens to you, consider using those triggers as a message to your body and to your mind to take different steps to interact with and respond to this person. Some of the following ideas might be helpful in minimizing the stress and keeping your mental acuity sharpened.

  1. Recognize the triggers as they come. Don’t wait until you are in full-fledged fear and dread mode; rather, observe the triggers as they begin and talk to yourself more objectively about them. “Hmmm… my heart rate is speeding up. My palms are getting clammy. What’s that all about?” Turn your attention to what’s happening rather than fearing the interaction.
  2. Approach the person with curiosity. What makes them so difficult for you? Is it their personal style? Is it the way they treat you? Is it their communication approach? Start to diagnose what happens in the exchange that bothers you so much. Take an Interested Observer approach rather than being sucked in emotionally and just reacting. Be like the detective trying to figure out a puzzle.
  3. Ask yourself the “why?” question. Why do you think the person behaves like they do? Why do they act or speak in a certain way? What’s their history? What’s their experience? Look at them more clinically, trying to understand them and consider who they are underneath the difficult exterior that is so hard to deal with.
  4. Change the game. Going into the interaction, you know you probably have a certain act-and-react response that goes on: The person says or does something and you say or do something in response. Know this. Next time you interact with them, deliberately do something differently. Don’t step into the same dance. Take a different step — anything that is productive. Replace them with someone else you get along well with instead. React as if they were your best friend or someone else you really like. Act as if. See if their reaction changes in response to your changes.

Trying different ways to deal with a difficult person can actually be fun, as well as effective. And our stress level decreases as soon as we change our response and our reactions. Find someone this week who stresses you out and pick any one of these ideas to try out.