Difficult People: How to Deal and When to Ditch

IMAGE Jerri Ledford liked to think of herself as a good friend, but she had finally reached her limit. Despite subtle hints and blunt reminders, Carla just could not understand that calling Jerri every day and keeping her on the phone for an hour or more was getting in the way of Jerri's work. "I tried to hint, I tried being short with her, I tried avoiding her calls. Nothing seemed to work," recalls the Tennessee mom of two. "It was getting to the point where I'd dread answering the phone, fearing it would be Carla. For a while, I quit answering it altogether."We all have a Carla—or a Carl—in our lives, someone who cannot seem to take a hint. Someone who is rude or thoughtless. Someone who is, in a word, difficult.Dealing with difficult people is a balancing act. You want to draw boundaries, but you do not want to be rude. You want to be direct, but you do not want to alienate anyone. So what is the solution?

Getting in the Driver's Seat

The key, experts say, lies in realizing you are not at the mercy of a difficult person, even when that person may seem to hold the power in the relationship, as in the case of a supervisor. "There are many alternatives that people have at their fingertips," says therapist William J. Knaus, EdD, author of Take Charge Now . For instance, Jon Hess, assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia, studied ways in which people handle difficult relationships. He came up with a variety of options, including:
  • Interacting with the difficult person only in groups
  • Humoring the person and tolerating their behavior
  • Ignoring the person completely
  • Speeding up interactions to minimize time spent together
Of course, some of these options are more effective than others. Sometimes, the best thing is to bite your tongue and let the irritation pass. Other times, though, you may need to confront the person directly about their behavior, or even end the relationship altogether.

Making the Call

How you handle the difficult people you encounter depends on several factors, including:
  • What kind of relationship you have
  • How long the problematic interaction has lasted
  • What is at risk if you do not develop a positive outcome
  • How willing the other person is to work on the issue
In the case of a short-term interaction with someone with whom you have little investment—the reckless driver who cuts you off on the highway—you may decide to let the irritation go. It is simply not worth the effort to try to change such a situation. Instead, take a few deep breaths and put your mind elsewhere.On the other end of the spectrum, though, are those tough interactions extending for months or years, like with family, friends, or co-workers. Not only do you have more invested in these relationships, you also have to deal with these people over and over, making the irritation much harder to overlook. The solution here, says Sybil Evans, a personal coach specializing in conflict and the author of Hot Buttons , is to take a systematic approach to addressing the problem.

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