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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


How To Deal With Difficult People

Dealing with difficult people can be... well difficult, or it can be incredibly easy. The choice is yours. As always. Again, it really does depend on how you choose to respond. You can get all involved and tied up with negative disagreement, and possibly anger, or you can keep your cool as well as your sanity. Keeping your cool does not mean you will necessarily win any battles - actually, you’ll probably lose a large number, but in the end it’s the war with yourself that matters.Well, it’s something to aim for.

Nor should you imagine that there is a simple solution, albeit tiresome, that can be applied each and every time you come across a difficult person. No such luck - it’s a fresh challenge on each occasion.

Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are easy to spot (these ones tend to shout a lot), some come quietly and stab you in the back (as Oscar Wilde remarked, friends would stab you in the front).The worst are the ones who pretend to listen and say they understand, but don’t do either.They are the worst because they suggest that maybe you are the difficult person. Maybe you are. It’s been intimated.

Here are some helpful hints. They work for me. Sometimes.

It’s Not About Them, It’s About You
It’s not personal, so why take it personally? People are often so upset and unhappy with their own lives that they want to take others down with them. Or they just want to find someone else to blame. Just say no thank you. Well not actually say it; just adopt a non-confrontational expression of non-interest and don’t, whatever you do, look into their eyes - look at different parts of their face as though you were scanning their face for possible clues to something completely unrelated. At this point you can look mildly interested. This will unnerve them because, a) you don’t appear to be taking them seriously, and b) you can’t possibly take someone seriously if you’re scanning their face for defects. In other words, difficult people should not be taken seriously. It’s bad for your health and dangerous to theirs. This is not about them, it's about you. Your response.

Some people suggest that you should try to imagine the difficult person as a baby and that way you’ll feel more kindly towards them. This doesn’t work for me because I love babies and refuse to have their good name contaminated by difficult adults. I forgive babies everything - especially difficult babies. This is not the same feeling I have with adults where my instinct calls for wringing necks.

Don’t Engage With Anger
Well not unless you want to feel angry yourself. Some of us do, perversely, I know. It’s so easy to stoke anger - you only have to imagine feeling angry and there it is, all up and ready to fight. Actually engaging with an angry person... well, you are definitely asking for it. You can hardly blame the other if you go swimming with them.

Theories Of Anger Management
I have this theory about how to deal with difficult people - it’s the same theory that I apply to minor irritations. And it isn’t what you’ll find in most self help books. Most self help authors suggest that the best way to deal with the potential build-up of anger that can all too often arise from minor irritations is to let it out. Punch a bag or a pillow. Imagine the pillow is the person that is annoying you. This works, apparently, because you’ll be violent to a pillow and not to yourself by holding in all that irritation. This is the "catharsis hypothesis" - the notion that it’s better to vent your anger than keep it bottled up. Well, I don’t agree. Not least because, despite my perversity, I’m also a non-violent person. I really don’t want to punch even the idea of a person. It’s still violence to me.

I also never really understood the metaphor of bottling things up, but apparently if you do let things bottle up then one day, and soon, you’ll explode with the pressure of it all. What began as a minor irritation will eventually release itself in the form an aggressive rage. Same problem that  difficult people display, I’d say. 

I really do think this is a shaky hypothesis and hypothesis is all it is because I couldn't find a scrap of evidence to support it. I looked all morning. What I did find was some fine research which indicates that venting actually makes things worse. Rather than punching pillows, this research suggests doing something incompatible with anger, such as reading or listening to music. Of course this won’t in any way address the cause of the irritation (typical) but it will leave you in a better state to do so. So that’s good. Just like losing some battles in favour of winning the war - makes sense to me. The lazy woman's way.

More Seriously..
I do think it’s important not to engage in the first place. I learnt early on not to wage war with the outside world on inconsequential things, and instead I now turn my attention inward towards myself. This simple shift of attention has changed how I experience my world, including all the outside irritations, including difficult people, that used to drive me insane. As a result I am now more content and a whole lot more tolerant. Apparently. I do my best.
This is what I do:
  • When faced with a difficult person I stop and breathe
  • I pay attention to how I am feeling and what I am thinking. This allows me to recognise how my old habits work so that they now no longer control me.
  • I become aware of my (new) self.
  • I then scan the face of the difficult person, looking for those defects I mentioned earlier, whilst maintaining a composure of polite indifference. Stress on polite - you don’t want to incite rage, remember. If you can manage quizical then that’s best. Quizical is very confusing.
  • I then think of the people I love the most and I pour this love onto my irritation much as you would put balm on a physical wound*.
  • Rinse and repeat

*It doesn’t always work - principally because some of these people that I love the most can also be incredibly difficult. It’s hard to treat difficult love in the same way as treating difficult people you don’t love at all. There’s advice for that, but not for now... you’ll just have to read our book.

Mind Over Matter - does it really matter if you are right?
What we focus on tends to expand itself because where attention goes, energy flows. In other words, don’t waste your precious energy. If the person doesn’t matter then you don’t mind. Feel free to lose battles that do not matter. Getting upset is just a waste of tea time.

Freedom Of Speech
People are as entitled to their opinions as you are yours. Some may have a less than eloquent way of expressing themselves – it may even be offensive, but they are still entitled to do so. Difficult people have the right to express their own opinions and we have the right to choose your responses. Allow them to express how they feel and let it be. Remember that it’s all relative and a matter of perspective. What we consider positive can be perceived by another as negative. Sorry to be the one who tells you, but it’s sometimes the case that you are in the wrong. Just occasionally. Not a big problem. Honestly.

Check Their Shoes
As cliched as this may sound, we tend to forget that we become blind-sided in some situations. Try putting yourself in the difficult person's position.This understanding might give you a new perspective and may help you see where the problem lies. On the other hand it may reinforce your absolute certainty that this is a very difficult person who needs to be left well alone. Check their shoes first - it’s only polite.

Stop Talking About It
Stop talking about difficult people because the more we talk about something, the more of that thing we’ll notice. Do your best to not repeat the story to others. You are depriving difficult people of oxygen remember, not looking for attention. If you haven’t got something good to say about another person then best to say nothing at all  (but don’t actually say this because it’s a dead give away. Obviously). On the other hand, gossip away with trusted friends - that’s what friends are for, after all; just don’t get het up and all upset about it for long because that’s just boring, even to the best of friends.

Go For A Run
or a walk, or a swim. Works well. For a while.

Write It
Take out some paper and write freely about the difficult bastard without editing. Continue to do so until you have nothing else to say. Now, roll the paper up into a ball, close your eyes and toss the paper ball into the rubbish. Gone, gone, gone.Good riddance to bad rubbish. Oh dear you missed the basket.
I see that you are already enlightened.

For more advice on how to deal with difficult people you really will have to read our book. It talks about all those difficult things you really think but find hard to admit to, never mind deal with - such as difficult people that you actually love...

posted by Annabel

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