Some people go to extraordinary lengths to be difficult. Think of the diva actress whose on-set needs can never be met or the boss who keeps moving the goal posts. The difficult person elevates the deliberate provocation to an art form. The underlying message is often, unless you agree with me and go along, you’ll regret it. Although the difficult people make up 3-5% of the population, they create over 50% of the everyday problems.
One clue that a person is attempting to intimidate or manipulate you is the use of unpredictable, or protean, behavior—acts that are random and seemingly out of the blue. A dictator keeps his minions guessing—and scared. Some forms of despotism are much subtler: Duke Ellington was known for provoking heated rivalries and feuds among his band mates in the belief that such strife would make the music hotter.
Erratic behavior is a powerful weapon because it defies accurate prediction. Often, the behavior comes as a surprise even to the person generating it. Flying into a rage or staring you down and dismissing you summarily are common strategies to keep you off-kilter. Unpredictable actions serve the purpose of confusing potential usurpers and avoiding responsibility. Your boss freaks out, throws things and yells. Some might call him irrational, but the irrationality gives him a leg up.
Erratic behavior served adaptive ends in our past, and it still does. Just as a minnow might cut a zigzagging path to avoid being snapped up by a larger fish, the boss alternately screams and stonewalls to avoid having her motives laid bare.
Protean behavior evolved to prevent people from being psyched out. That’s not to say that fickle acts are always openly hostile and aggressive. The difficult person can just as easily be solicitous or seductive: Think of femme fatales from biblical Judith to Mata Hari. Unpredictable behavior is at heart about deception, and it’s just as likely to be unconscious as conscious.
If such behavior comes from a boss or a spouse, you’ve got some tricky choices to make. There are several problems confronting you at once, since you’re juggling competing goals. Your ego tells you to stick up for yourself, but you want to avoid an unnecessary argument.
Usually we can’t resist getting riled up in our own defense. The ease with which we fall into dueling dyads is a remnant of a “culture of honor” that most of our ancestors needed to adopt. Our neural circuitry equips us to jump immediately to our own defense. The Neanderthink urge to rectify an injustice kicks in automatically, lest we accept abject defeat. The immediacy of the “me versus you” and “us versus them” reaction hinders a more intelligent and considered response.
We usually regret having charged into battle—or at least we wonder what we were thinking, and that’s just it: We weren’t thinking. An emotional reaction bypasses thoughtful deliberation. No rational person today would engage in an argument with a random person on the street. However, if someone bumps into us, blocks our way or otherwise wants to hassle us, our immediate inclination is to freeze, fight or flee. Similarly, our immediate response to the verbal slights or manipulative barbs of a difficult person is often to fight back. Your immediate reaction is, I can’t stand this crazy, insulting behavior.
We too quickly jump to our own defense when we feel insulted. We do so because we have evolved a hyper-vigilant concern for our standing among peers. This focus on status makes sense as a play for dominance and power, qualities that translate into real mating options. The need to retain status is an example of Neanderthink. This knee-jerk demand for status can push us to get outraged and to lose focus on larger goals, such as keeping your job or your partner. We want to prove that we are correct—but doing it angrily and intolerantly can hinder your major objectives. Dominance at every turn is good, but not a necessity.
This is not to say that everyone has the immediate urge to lash out in self-defense. Some people freeze when confronted with criticism, telling himself or herself, I must not be criticized or I must be above criticism. Temporary paralysis in response to a physical threat may once have kept you alive; but freezing in the face of a verbal onslaught won’t help you make your case.
To cope with a difficult person, you need to learn to question your automatic defensive philosophies, such as I will not be treated that way; I won’t let you get away with this and my reputation is on the line if I fail.
Certainly, we all can be miserable, hostile and unpleasant at times. However, difficult people are this way all the time. A brief encounter with a difficult person leaves one angry, frustrated, and demoralized. These people go right for the jugular vein. The negative behavioral patterns they learned are used strategically to wear you down. Their only objective is to win regardless of who stands in their way.
Difficult people have learned to be this way because it is effective for them. Their hostile and negative behavior serves them well. Their arsenal of aggressive behavior catches their prey off guard and then renders them helpless. Consequently, after a confrontation with these people, it’s usual to feel mentally abused and frustrated.
Resisting the trap set by difficult people is easier if you’re aware of your vulnerability to getting hurt and then feeling angry. That tendency is a vestige of Neanderthink, because there was a time when your status was more closely linked to life or death than it is today. In these instinctual moments, we may lose track of our higher selves and become the human animal with an urge to protect ourselves when attacked. This too is natural. However, we are the only animal blessed with intelligence and having the ability to control our responses. So how can we do that?
Research shows that supportive relationships are good for our mental and physical health. However, dealing with difficult people and maintaining ongoing negative relationships is actually detrimental to our health. It’s a good idea to diminish or eliminate relationships that are filled with conflict. However, what do you do if the person in question is a family member, co-worker, or someone you otherwise can’t easily eliminate from your life?
The following are tips for dealing with difficult people who are in your life, for better or for worse:
1. Avoid discussing divisive and personal issues, like religion and politics, or other issues that tend to cause conflict. If the other person tries to engage you in a discussion that will probably become an argument, change the subject or leave the room.
2. In dealing with difficult people, don’t try to change the other person; you will only enter into a power struggle, cause defensiveness, invite criticism, or otherwise make things worse. It also makes you a more difficult person to deal with. Change your response to the other person; this is all you have the power to change. For example, don’t feel you need to accept abusive behavior. You can use assertive communication to draw boundaries when the other person chooses to treat you in an unacceptable way.
3. Try not to place blame on yourself or the other person for the negative interactions. It may just be a case of your two personalities fitting poorly.
4. Remember that you don’t have to be close with everyone; just being polite goes a long way toward getting along and appropriately dealing with difficult people.
5. Work to maintain a sense of humor – difficulties will roll off your back much more easily. Shows like The Office and books like David Sedaris’ Naked can help you see the humor in dealing with difficult people.
6. Be sure to cultivate other more positive relationships in your life to offset the negativity of dealing with difficult people.
7. Remember that most relationship difficulties are due to a dynamic between two people rather than one person being unilaterally “bad.” Here’s a list of things to avoid in dealing with conflict. Do you do any of them?
A. Try to look for the positive aspects of others, especially when dealing with family, and focus on them. The other person will feel more appreciated, and you will likely enjoy your time together more.
B. However, don’t pretend the other person’s negative traits don’t exist. Don’t tell your secrets to a gossip, rely on a flake, or look for affection from someone who isn’t able to give it. This is part of accepting them for who they are.
C. Get your needs met from others who are able to meet your needs. Tell your secrets to a trustworthy friend who’s a good listener, or process your feelings through journaling, for example. Rely on people who have proven to be trustworthy and supportive. This will help you and the other person by taking pressure off the relationship and removing a source of conflict.
D. Know when it’s time to distance yourself, and do so. If the other person can’t be around you without antagonizing you, minimizing contact may be the key. If they’re continually abusive, it’s best to cut ties and let them know why. Explain what needs to happen if there ever is to be a relationship, and let it go. (If the offending party is a boss or co-worker, you may consider switching jobs.)
The first step in coping with a difficult person is to understand why they behave this way. Generally, these people are unhappy, insecure, and have low self-esteem. Early in life they learned to get their needs met in maladaptive ways, such as, being the bully. Although there are different types of difficult people – some are overly aggressive, while others may be passive-aggressive – their dynamics are similar. Like all human beings, all they want is to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, they have learned inappropriate ways to achieve this.
These behavioral patterns are deeply ingrained in the personality of the difficult person. The overly aggressive difficult person (one who bullies, explodes, screams, etc.) uses their aggressive posture as a defense mechanism. Because of their weak and fragile ego, they need to protect themselves. Their best defense is a strong offense-aggression. Therefore, they feel in control of themselves only in a situation that allows them to feel powerful. However, it doesn’t stop there. Like all weak people, their insatiable need to feel secure makes it necessary for them to win – and to win at any cost.
The second step in trying to cope with difficult people is to distinguish between a person who is having a bad day and one who is a difficult person. Keep in mind that difficult people make up a small percentage of the population. However, having an encounter with one makes that percentage appear larger.
The first way to help distinguish between the two is to reflect on the history of the person. In other words, “Is the behavioral pattern normal or unusual for this person?” The difficult person is this way all of the time. A non-difficult person who is having a bad day is just reacting to a particular situation.
Another approach in distinguishing between the difficult person and a person having a bad day is found in the way you communicate with them. Although hostile at first, the non-difficult person will eventually respond to your effective communication and rational reasoning. The difficult person will be relentless in their pursuit to beat you and win.
To help you maintain composure when confronted by difficult people, it is important to keep three things in mind. First, you can never change the difficult person. The old saying that a leopard never loses its spots holds true with the difficult person. These people need to be this way and for them to change is to expose their vulnerability.
When confronted by difficult people, remain focused and firm. Like spiders spinning their webs, they are trying to trap you. By bombarding your ego with insults and intimidation, they want you to lose control and fight with them. When this happens, they got-cha. Listen to them, maintain direct eye contact and when appropriate speak in a clear firm voice. It is easy to become wrapped up in the heated situation, so remain detached and distant from these people. Doing so will help keep you from becoming entangled in their web of misery and hostility.
The final step to help cope with the difficult person is not to personalize the problem. Certainly, this is easier said than done. Between wishing they would be different, thinking you can really help them, and trying to survive their emotional assault, it’s difficult not to internalize the problem. Yet, in order to cope effectively with these people, it is crucial to maintain your self-esteem. Some of the following thoughts might be helpful in your attempt to depersonalize the situation:
This is their problem; I will not make it mine. I’m not going to allow anyone to dictate my behavior. They want me to fight with them, but I won’t allow it. Their need to be difficult is a cover-up for their own inadequacies. I have the choice to play or not this game.
- The bottom line is that trying to cope with difficult people is never easy and is quite frustrating. Trust the fact that all people have trouble dealing with difficult people. Although it may not seem possible to deal with difficult people effectively, remain confident in your abilities and coping skills. In addition, keep in mind that engaging in an argument with these people is a no-win proposition. In fact, the only way for you to win is to elect not to play.
- If you’re required to respond to an irrational attack, ask the antagonist what exactly he is upset about, in order to show that you are interested in communicating rather than in arguing. The burden of responsibility is now on the antagonist once again.
- After the unreasonable salvo, go ahead and agree with a kernel of truth in the complaint. You’ll overcome your own Neanderthink impulse to jump into the fray by looking for that one small fact about which the critic is correct—and hen agreeing with that single point. Your boss calls you a screw-up. Ask, “In what way did I screw up?” If she says, “You just are a screw up,” agree with one discreet example (if it is accurate), but correct her overgeneralization.
- You can defend yourself more easily and tactfully once the emotional heat has abated. Say your boss says, “Again, you’re totally screwing up.” You can defend without a defensive tone: “It is true that I made a mistake, and I appreciate constructive feedback to minimize errors in the future.” Stand up for yourself by reiterating the specific error, but refuse to be incorrectly labeled a screw-up.
- Offer to the difficult person your best guess as to what he or she is feeling, and ask for feedback. “It sounds like you’re angry right now, and I’m sorry about that.” This demonstrates a willingness to understand the difficult person’s frustration without blame or defensiveness.
- Resist the urge to fight to win the argument. Listening and asking questions leads others to their own better conclusions. This process is known as the Socratic Method. Although it didn’t ultimately help Socrates, today’s laws are a bit more enlightened—so it might help you.
- Forgive – What would the Dali Lama do if he were in the situation? He would most likely forgive. Remember that at our very core, we are good, but our judgment becomes clouded and we may say hurtful things. Ask yourself, what is it about this situation or person that I can seek to understand and forgive?
- Wait it Out – Sometimes I feel compelled to send instantly an email defending myself. I’ve learned that emotionally charged emails never get us the result we want; they only add oil to the fire. What is helpful is allowing cool off time. You can write the emotionally charged email to the person, just don’t send it off. Wait until you’ve cooled off before responding, if you choose to respond at all.
- Does it really matter if I am right? – Some times, we respond with the intention of defending the side we took a position on. If you find yourself arguing for the sake of being right, ask Does it matter if I am right? If yes, then ask why do I need to be right? What will I gain?
- Don’t Respond – Many times when a person initiates a negative message or difficult attitude, they are trying to trigger a response from you. When we react, we are actually giving them what they want. Let’s stop the cycle of negative snowballing and sell them short on what they’re looking for; don’t bother responding.
- Stop Talking About It – When you have a problem or a conflict in your life, don’t you find that people just love talking about it? We end up repeating the story to anyone who’ll listen. We express how much we hate the situation or person. What we fail to recognize in these moments is that the more we talk about something, the more of that thing we’ll notice. Example, the more we talk about how much we dislike a person, the more hate we will feel towards them and the more we’ll notice things about them that we dislike. Stop giving it energy, stop thinking about it, and stop talking about it. Do your best not to repeat the story to others.
- Be In Their Shoes – As cliché as this may sound, we tend to forget that we become blind-sided in the situation. Try putting yourself in their position and consider how you may have hurt their feelings. This understanding will give you a new perspective on becoming rational again, and may help you develop compassion for the other person.
- Look for the Lessons – No situation is ever lost if we can take away from it, some lessons that will help us grow and become a better person. Regardless of how negative a scenario may appear, there is always a hidden gift in the form of a lesson. Find the lesson(s).
- Choose to Eliminate Negative People In Your Life – Negative people can be a source of energy drain, while deeply unhappy people will want to bring you down emotionally, so that they are not down there alone. Be aware of this. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands and do not mind the energy drain, I recommend that you cut them off from your life. Cut them out by avoiding interactions with them as much as possible. Remember that you have the choice to commit to being surrounded by people who have the qualities you admire: optimistic, positive, peaceful and encouraging people. As Kathy Sierra said, “Be around the change you want to see in the world.”
- Become the Observer – When we practice becoming the observer of our feelings, our thoughts and the situation, we separate ourselves away from the emotions. Instead of identifying with the emotions and letting them consume us, we observe them with clarity and detachment. When you find yourself identifying with emotions and thoughts, bring your focus on your breathe.
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