Five tools for dealing with difficult people

Difficult people. We all have them. Even if we’ve done the hard work of scrubbing our personal relationships of the people who aren’t serving us, we’re bound to have humans in our lives that we didn’t choose, and yet have to engage. 

Here’s how you can do it with a little more peace.

Practice self-enquiry to uncover roots of your distaste for them.

Self-enquiry is a historically-rooted mindfulness practice that asks us to turn toward our distress and negative feelings in order to learn from them. It’s a practice that helps us see frustrating and anger-inducing situations as opportunities for growth rather than barriers or even problems to be solved. It might sound radical or a little woo-woo, but it’s powerful stuff. 

Self-enquiry asks us to get quiet with ourselves (or with a therapist or thought partner) and then ask ourselves questions in order to find our edge. Our edge is the place where we have energy – often that feels uncomfortable – and is usually signaled when we’ve been feeling defensive, over-thinking, or rigid. 

When we take a stance of openness toward our edge, we can ask ourselves things like, “What core expectations for people do I hold that this person seems to violate? What makes their approach so uncomfortable for me? Is there something that this interaction or this person is trying to teach me about myself?” And so on. 

The idea is that we are radically taking ownership of our reactions, rather than focusing on what the other person “should” or “should not” be doing. It takes courage and practice, but it’s a pathway to real insight into our own experiences. 

Consider offering feedback to them about their behavior. 

Have you ever had the experience of learning feedback from someone about yourself that apparently that person – and potentially others – have had for a long time, but you had no idea? It’s honestly a terrible feeling, and one I try to root into when I find myself desperately wanting to avoid giving someone else feedback. As much as I may struggle with them, I don’t want them to feel the pain of not knowing how they are being perceived. 

It is indeed a gift to offer feedback, and it takes a desire to offer it and courage. It’s a practice in assuming the best about someone – that if they had a better understanding of their own behavior or how it is experienced by others, they may want to shift. We know that this will not always be the case, but it’s the most forthright and effective thing we can do. 

Brene Brown tells us that “clear is kind” and this has been a mantra for me over the years. Providing feedback with specific data and impact is not in fact “mean,” as patriarchy tries to convince us, but rather the kindest thing we can offer. 

Connect to your values in your interactions with them. 

Let’s say this is a person that you have to continue to interact with on a regular basis, and their behavior or attitude is not changing – perhaps despite your generous feedback. At this point, it’s time to focus on your own behavior as the only thing you can control. 

Consider what you value in relationships or your work or family life – whatever part of your life this person touches. If one of your core values is integrity, consider how you can show up to your interactions with that person living into your integrity. That might look like communicating clearly the impact they are having on you. It might mean standing up straighter and taller when you are speaking to them. It might mean keeping your interactions brief to protect your own heart. 

Your value can take many forms, but being clear on what it is your practicing will shift the focus. And that’s one of the key benefits of doing this. Instead of your attention being outward on how obnoxious or problematic they are being, your attention is inward on how you can be successful in being who you want to be. And that’s protective of your energy. 

Work to understand their behavior as a defensive coping. 

This is where you essentially pretend to be a therapist, while also acknowledging that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t) intervene. We’re pulling out the old adage, “Hurt people hurt people,” not because we are giving out free passes for crappiness, but because putting someone’s behavior in context can help us defuse from the impact of it. 

Consider working with a man who is constantly one-upping the people around him. Annoying AF, right? Of course. But how often do we think about the role of patriarchy on him? He has likely been acculturated to make his opinion known regardless of the impact or cost, and that at some point it worked for him to do so. He was taught that his perspective is critically important, and if he believes that, it becomes his duty to ensure it gets communicated. Perhaps in his family of origin, he was never heard and his voice was always silenced. Now he’s overcompensating in a way that alienates others. 

Look, I’m not saying we need to put up with that kind of nonsense. I’m simply saying that when we zoom out from the individual and look at the family or cultural context, it could give us insight that allows us to feel feelings other than disempowerment in their presence. 

Regulate your nervous system before and after interacting

At the end of the day, the most important skill that I think we can practice when dealing with difficult people is knowing how to re-regulate our nervous systems after. When we know we’ll be engaging with someone who is triggering for us, we can work to prepare our bodies for that interaction through breathing, meditation, mantras, a cold shower, engaging movement, artistic expression, or a primal scream. And we can use some of the same strategies to complete the stress cycle after the interaction so that we don’t carry that energy into the rest of our days.  

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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