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Dealing with Difficult People

Women in a disagreement

We have all been there — dealing with someone who appears, on the surface, intent on our misery. While some have no idea to the extent that they distress others with their poor work habits or social skills, habitual whining, or being emotionally or physically imposing, others seem almost to relish being difficult. They wear their temperament like a badge of honour, proudly stating their mantra: "This is me — deal with it!"

        But what if we do not want to deal with it? And what if the situation is compounded by the difficult person being a family member, neighbour, or colleague? Although we may wonder why they are so determined to be abrasive, demeaning, sarcastic, or uncouth, the more important question is — what can we do?

        Well, one of the first things we can do is to try being objective about the situation. We need to determine if this is a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication. Could we perhaps be mistaking a trait such as social unease for arrogance? Could we be confusing difficulty with the language for abruptness? If, after some careful thought, we determine that this person is indeed taking aim at our emotions, we would now have some decisions to make. As the only person over whom we have control is ourselves, should we want to see changes in the relationship, it will have to start with us. This is not easy.

        Emotional overload is common when dealing with a difficult person. Stress and negative emotions run high when there is low trust. Our fight-flight-freeze response — that is, the release of hormones including adrenalin and noradrenalin that prepares our bodies to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety — can be triggered at the mere thought of the difficult person, past encounters with them and imagined future ones. The distress you feel is real and can have not only an effect on your mind but also your body. This can result in increases in heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Though this fight-flight-freeze response is vital for genuine threats, it's less than ideal when triggered by routine encounters, like coincidentally crossing paths with your neighbor or when you realize that it was your mother-in-law who rang the doorbell. 

        Many mental health professionals make the following recommendations for coping with a difficult person in your life:

• Learn more about them

• Practice a composed response beforehand

• Practice active listening

• Resolve to remain calm

• Speak to the person with dignity and respect

• Do not return their hostility or argue

• Do not expect compliance

• Seek common interest to build rapport

• Show a genuine interest in them

• Ask for help or suggestions from someone who knows them well

Women getting along

        It is heartening to note that it is not unheard of that many now count among their close friends, those whom they once thought to be difficult. Remaining calm and establishing common ground goes a long way to change the trajectory of a relationship gone off course. If this is unlikely with the one who comes to your mind, then by employing some of the suggestions above you may be able to insulate your peace of mind by handling your difficult person skillfully, parrying any unpleasantries with confidence, poise, and even humour.


Images by: Liza Summer


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