Dealing with difficult people

Difficult people are everywhere! They’re in our families and in our workplaces, they’re on our buses and they’re definitely in our supermarkets (you know the people I’m talking about). But these people don’t necessarily have to hold a lot of power over us.

You may have heard the story about the Buddha where a verbally abusive man came to see him and started hurling insults, but the Buddha just sat there calmly. After some time, the abusive man asked the Buddha why he failed to respond. The Buddha replied, “If someone offers you a gift, and you decline to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The answer, of course, is that the “gift” remains with the giver until we choose to take it. It’s not always that easy of course (but sometimes, it really is – give it a shot).  My most useful 10 tips to deal with difficult people are as follows. Let go of whichever don’t work for you in your situation:

1.   Don’t accept the gift. We’ve touched on this, and it’s the most important technique. You do have the power to change your life through changing your thoughts, instead of being a victim to them. Mentally decide that the angry, abusive, irrational person can keep “the gift.” Know that if you don’t choose to take it, it remains with them. You can even visualise the energy they are trying to give you as brightly coloured swirls around them. This awareness alone can give you a huge amount of power when dealing with difficult people, because you realise you do have some power in the situation.

2.   Nudge them awake. Sometimes it’s enough to just pay attention to the other person and decide not to let them affect you, but other times you need to take action to address the situation. A technique that works for some people is to say something to gently nudge the person out of their silly behaviour, without making their behaviour even worse. As an example, you could say: “You sound very upset about *insert trivial matter here*. Maybe we should take a break and come back to this later?” You’ve basically told them they need a timeout, but in a very diplomatic way. Some people have so little awareness that they don’t even realise how much they’re projecting onto others, and for those people this type of practise can help snap them out of it.

3.   Consider your own projections. Ask yourself: Is there a way you could see this differently? I’m not saying you should take responsibility for the other person’s bad behaviour. But sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a moment to say to yourself, “I’m willing to see this differently”, simply because you never know the other person’s intention and you could be making some incorrect assumptions based on your own life experience (I’m afraid I’ve done this way too many times). Once you do this, you may see the difficult person’s behaviour slightly differently. For example, you may realise that they’re just super passionate about an efficient workplace. That doesn’t mean you should accept their shitty behaviour, but it gives you a new way to approach it. The person is no longer “just an arsehole” but is now “a dude who acts like an arsehole sometimes because they’re just so into their job”. Yep, still not OK. But it’s a lot easier to start from here, because the conversation becomes “I know you are super passionate about your job, however I’m not sure you realise that your behaviour isn’t appropriate.”

4.   Confront the person directly. As alluded to in point 3, sometimes you need to confront the person about his/her behaviour directly. No gentle nudges, just facts. This is really freakin’ hard, but sometimes it has to happen. Make sure you do this from a place of calm, not in the middle of feeling upset. Choose the time wisely. Raise your standards for what you’re willing to accept in your life, and enforce them. Explain why certain things were no longer tolerable for you, and detail what you want to see happen. Now the other person may decline your “demands,” but then at least you know where you stand and can decide what to do next.  

5.   Take a detached point of view. To most people this feels a little wrong, as we’re never really taught to look at our lives from an outside perspective. But just like stepping back to look at a painting with more clarity (it’s just smears of colour when you get too close), we can step back to make logical decisions in our own lives. A good way to detach is to imagine your life is a video game, and you’re the main playable character. This difficult person is just part of the game (a non-playable character), but if you can figure out a good way to deal with them, you get to level up. So consider: “What would be my best move here? What action feels high integrity for my character, but is still looking after their boundaries and wellbeing?” From this calmer place, new ideas might come up that you never considered before.

6.   Cut them out. Sometimes you need to cut people out of your life. Even family. Other people may tell you you’ve done the wrong thing, because they’re looking at your situation from their own point of view based on their own personal experiences. But they aren’t you, and they really don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to your life. On that basis, make choices that are right for you and ditch the guilt.  

7.   Go higher. If the person is a boss or co-worker, consider taking the issue to a higher level of management if possible, and keep a record of the date, time and outcome of any discussions. Look for a new job while following point 1; letting them keep the gift as much as possible, and point 8 and 9 below.

8.   Make space for joy. I know, you don’t think this really matters because you want to fix this problem, right? But this is an important part of it, because it’s really hard to fix anything when your problems have become so big in your mind that they bleed into every other facet of your life. Make sure you’ve made space for joy in your life when you’re away from the difficult person; carve out the time and treat it like a vital appointment. If you don’t make a conscious effort to have joy in your life you’ll fall down the bottomless pit of despair about this problem, then any action you take is probably not going to be good action, because you’re not your best self. Take steps to hold onto your joy.  

9.   Focus on the good. Similar to the step above, and just as important. When you’re dealing with the difficult people in your life, make sure that you don’t forget about all the good people you encounter, too. This is more important than people realise! Our worlds can get very small when we’re constantly focusing on the negative. Try going to bed 5 minutes earlier to write down 3 good things that happened each day before you go to sleep. It can be anything, and I don’t expect it to be related to your difficult person. The whole point of the exercise is to keep your energy in balance; you don’t want your issues with this person to bleed into every other aspect of your life. Also, solutions to problems rarely come to us when we stay in the energy of the problem. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that feeling like crap, and focusing on the crap, can ever make your life better. Your best decisions will come from your best self. 

10.  Consider letting it go. This isn’t always the right option, but you’ll know when it’s right for you. Sometimes we don’t actually need to do anything; we aren’t around the difficult person all that often, and we just need to stop focusing on them constantly, hoping they can suddenly change into someone else. We can minimise our contact and focus on ourselves. Remember the words of Eckhart Tolle: “Change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible, leave the situation, or accept it. All else is madness.”

Dealing with difficult people is a part of life, but there are things you can do that will make a difference. The most important thing, however, is to take care of your own energy first. 


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