“You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them,” says Rick Kirschner, N.D., coauthor of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand.
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”– Gichin Funakoshi, father of modern Karate
Jacklyn was a legal secretary in a litigation firm. It was a shark tank of aggressive, competitive lawyers who (to say the least) were misogynous, sexually inappropriate and demanding. She needed the job desperately and yet was totally turned off by the temper tantrums, insensitivity and overall boorishness of the legal team. She was trapped in a hostile work environment. She didn’t know what to do.
Many of us have been involved in work or family interactions with very difficult people and there are, at times, no real way out. What to do? Can we confront them, try to be more difficult than they are, fight the good fight or can we simply go to the boss or the person we are having a conflict with, report the problem and find some reasonable resolution? With the notable exceptions of sexual abuse and harassment that must be reported, there are some options that should be considered if we are to deal effectively with difficult people. In popular psychology we hear seemly great advice that we sit down and discuss whatever the problem might be with the person and come up with some viable solutions to thorny issues.
Experience has taught me that if there is a rational conversation to be had, then we would not need to talk to that person in the first place. The problem lies in how to communicate with people who do not have all their emotional or mental screws in place. With difficult people, the sitting down and discussing part can go south in a heartbeat.
So, what are some methods that might work with difficult people?
- Understand that we cannot change anyone, so trying to do that should go out the window immediately.
- We can only do one thing at a time so make it simple and do not make it about them.
- Someone has to be the adult in the room and it might as well be you.
- Be the change you want to make.
- There is a Sufi saying and that is: In communication, is it true, is it necessary and is it kind? Stick with this as a yard stick for communication.
- Difficult people stimulate our personal issues. Sandra Crowe, author of Since Strangling Isn’t an Option suggests that “Ask yourself: How is this person holding up the mirror to me?” For example, Jacklyn came to value the difficulty with her colleagues because they stimulated her deeper issues and helped her find a new way of responding.
- Don’t say anything when you are angry. Cool off, think about how to say what you want to say that might go in.
When we feel wronged by difficult people, instead of focusing on what is being done to us, try looking at the situation from a broader perspective and consider what we are doing to them. To find that perspective it’s valuable to focus on what is bothering them or what have we done to upset them rather than from simply being reactive. In this way we can take a proactive approach rather than reacting. The best attitude is to be firm but not hard, calm but not submissive, clear but not pushy.
Our natural tendency is to work things out, to react to negative attention and to hit back when we feel wronged. Working with difficult people is essentially counter intuitive. Whatever we naturally want to do is usually the opposite of what we actually need to do. Digging deep into our true nature, our own darkness and then be the kind of person we most admire in the face of what others do is the key. The more we have worked through our own anger and insecurities the more ability we can deal effectively with difficult people. The key is to swim upstream with our integrity intact and to know how to respond to the gambit of what difficult people do to us as we encounter them in this world. Being true to our best self and not bending to the behavior of others with our own bad behavior is in the truest sense our best defense.