How to Deal With Difficult People

Couple in a disagreement

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Dealing with chronically "difficult" people and maintaining ongoing negative relationships can take a toll your health. This type of chronic stress can affect you both emotionally and physically. Because of this, it’s a good idea whenever possible to diminish or eliminate relationships that are filled with conflict.

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? Sometimes you just have to deal with negative people, but knowing how to do so effectively can help keep stress at bay.

This article discusses how to deal with difficult people who are in your life, for better or for worse. It also covers how to create healthier patterns and get help if you need it.

Keep Conversations Neutral

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 discussion that will probably become an argument, change the subject or leave the room.

Focus on being respectful and kind, even if you don't agree with them. Rather than arguing, try to model the behavior that you would like to see in order to avoid escalation.

This strategy can often be effective when it comes to coworkers, friends, customers, or extended family members. This strategy is less effective for the people closest to you, such as your immediate or close family. 

Family therapy may be helpful for improving the family dynamic. This can improve communication, reduce conflict between family members, and may help the difficult person improve their behavior.

Accept the Reality of Who They Are

In dealing with difficult people, don’t try to change the other person; you will only get into a power struggle, cause defensiveness, invite criticism, or otherwise make things worse. It also makes you a more difficult person to deal with.

Seeing the best in someone is important; however, don’t pretend the other person’s negative traits don’t exist. Don’t tell your secrets to someone who gossips, rely on someone unreliable, or look for affection from someone who cannot give it. This is part of accepting them for who they are.

Try not to place blame on yourself or the other person for the negative interactions. It may merely be a case of your two personalities fitting poorly.

Determine the Difficult Person's Need

While it is important to accept the person for who they are, that does not mean that you can't make an effort to understand their underlying problem. You might say something like "tell me more" to learn more about the issue and help them feel understood. 

If you are in a situation such as at work or a family gathering, try giving that individual a job or task. Not only can this keep them busy and help prevent conflicts, but it can also help that person feel like they are making a meaningful contribution.

Know What's Under Your Control

Instead of stressing out about not being able to change the other person or leave the situation, it can be helpful to focus on the aspects of the situation that are under your control. You cannot control other people, but you can manage your response.

One strategy that can help is to work on building your frustration tolerance. Rather than feeling annoyed and distressed by the difficult person's behavior, you'll be better able to reframe how you think about the situation.

Stress management approaches can be one way to care for yourself and improve your coping ability. Take steps to ensure that you are getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and getting support from other people in your life.

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.

See the Best In People

Try to look for the positive aspects of others, especially when dealing with family, and focus on them. When someone is engaging in challenging behaviors, seeing their good qualities can be difficult. Developing your optimism and reframing skills can help.

The other person will feel more appreciated, and you will likely enjoy your time together more. This may also help them change their behavior for the better, or at least help make them easier to deal with in the short term.

You don't have to be close to everyone. Merely being polite goes a long way toward creating harmony.

Create Healthier Patterns

Remember that most relationship difficulties result from a dynamic between two people rather than one person being unilaterally "bad." The chances are good that you're repeating the same patterns of interaction. Changing your response could get you out of this rut, and responding in a more effective way can improve your chances of a healthier pattern forming.

Healthy communication skills such as practicing active listening may help you better engage with a difficult person. Avoid saying "I understand," which often comes off as inauthentic and patronizing. Instead, focus on phrases that might help defuse conflict, such as "I'm sorry," "I hear you," or "I'll try to help."

Be sure to cultivate other more positive relationships in your life to offset the negativity that these challenging relationships can bring.

Get Support Where You Can Find It

It is also essential to build healthy relationships with supportive people. When you are dealing with a difficult person, it can be helpful in the short term to have a trusted friend or loved one who is a good listener. Another practical way to process your feelings is through journaling.

In addition to relying on people who have proven trustworthy and supportive, you may also want to consider longer-term forms of support such as finding a mentor or talking to a therapist. This will help you and the other person by taking pressure off the relationship and removing a source of conflict.

A mentor may be helpful if you are struggling with conflict in the workplace. They can offer tips and support that can guide you through the challenges you will face in your career. A therapist can provide support and help you with strategies to relieve stress or reframing situations.

Set Limits

Use assertive communication to draw boundaries when the other person chooses to treat you in an unacceptable way. Boundaries are what you will and will not accept within the context of a relationship.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are what you will and will not accept within the context of a relationship. They set the standard for how you will be treated and identify your personal bottom line. Establishing boundaries is essential to taking care of yourself and maintaining healthy relationships.

There are a few steps you can take to set boundaries with difficult people. Start by communicating your limits clearly and concisely. Be clear and direct. State what you will and will not accept in a calm and confident manner.

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 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I keep a positive attitude when dealing with difficult people?

    It can be difficult to keep a positive attitude when dealing with difficult people. You can start by trying to see things from their perspective. Don't take things personally and try to focus on the positive aspects of the situation. Practice patience and understanding, but be sure to establish and maintain clear boundaries. Avoid getting into arguments or power struggles, and be ready to walk away if you need to.

  • How can I calm my anxiety when dealing with difficult people?

    Deep breathing can be a helpful strategy when you need to calm down quickly. Other techniques that might help include visualization and progressive muscle relaxation. If you have more time, try taking a walk or listening to soothing music.

    When difficult people are causing stress in your life, it's important to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. This means eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep. It also means taking breaks from difficult situations, spending time with supportive people, and doing things you enjoy.

  • How should I talk to difficult people?

    Using "I feel" statements can be helpful. This means that instead of making accusations or getting defensive, you focus on how the situation is affecting you. For example, you might say, "I feel frustrated when I have to keep repeating myself." This can help diffuse the tension and prevent the other person from getting defensive.

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