When Jail Time Isn’t an Option: How to Deal With Difficult People

Sometimes I know that it can seem that there is just a lack of common sense in a majority of the population, or that some people have the emotional intelligence of a rock. Although it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s negative energy, it’s important to catch yourself before you get pulled into the bad vibe vortex and save yourself the frustration that comes to dealing with difficult people. How you ask?

1. Adjust your expectations: Once you’ve identified someone as one of those people, don’t expect them to suddenly become more self-aware or full of sunshine. You can’t alter other people’s attitudes, but you can certainly alter your reaction to them. This will also help you create some emotional distance so you’re more likely to be able to deflect their crappy attitudes.

2. Reframe the situation: Remember, they are dealing with their own issues, and there’s no reason to make it yours. Mark Goulston, a business psychologist says “Most difficult people provoke us because they’re often hiding something – a lack of competence, a lack of ability or something they were supposed to do and didn’t do, and by provoking us, either from anger or complaining, what they often try to do is distract us from exposing whatever that thing is that they’re hiding.” Interesting. It’s also important to not get defensive and always widen your perspective of a situation – remember that people are likely going through their own shit, so don’t take it personally.

3. Pick your response: Let them finish talking, since interrupting one of these moody bastards could escalate the situation. Remaining calm and centered generally can help difficult people to catch themselves getting worked up and back off. Some effective responses include the following:

  • “Could you repeat that again in a calmer tone? I kind of missed what you were saying.”
  • If they are being ridiculous, ask “Do you really believe what you just said?”
  • If they’re venting, “You seem (frustrated, angry, upset?) What’s going on?”
  • “I want to talk about what’s on your mind, but I can’t do it when you’re yelling. Let’s either sit down and talk more quietly, or take a time out and come back this afternoon.”

4. Move to problem solving: People who find comfort in complaining often do so because they feel the situation is hopeless. You can do your part in ending their cycle of negativity by helping them to move into a problem solving mode. When they are using language like “always” or “never” — remind them that the situation is not so black and white, and give your opinion of how things could be made better instead of just agreeing with them about how crappy everything is.

It’s important to make having a positive attitude a priority and not let button-pushers and happiness leeches creep into your life. Recognizing who tends to bring you down and creating space between you can help keep you safe. Being happy is easy – but not everyone has gotten the memo yet.


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