Difficult People: How to Deal and When to Ditch
Jerri Ledford liked to think of herself as a good friend, but she'd finally reached her limit. Despite subtle hints and blunt reminders, Carla just couldn't 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 can't seem to take a hint. Someone who's rude, or thoughtless, or just plain dense. Someone who is, in a word, difficult.
Dealing with difficult people is a balancing act. You want to draw boundaries, but you don't want to be rude. You want to be direct, but you don't want to alienate anyone. So what's the solution?
Getting in the Driver's Seat
The key, experts say, lies in realizing you're 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 unheeded. 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's at risk if you don't 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's 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.
Taking One Step at a Time
When conflict arises, Evans recommends first listening to what the other person has to say in a non-defensive, empathetic manner where you set aside your own thoughts and feelings. "This is the toughest thing to do," says Evans, given the natural tendencies to run away from conflict, to get defensive, or to attack.
Next, acknowledge the other person's feelings, using language such as, "You really sound concerned about this issue." By doing so, "You're really showing that you understand. That will definitely disarm the person," she says. One hint: It's critical that you're sincere in your response. "If it's not coming from the heart or feels phony, the person is going to get even more angry," warns Evans.
Finally, ask questions to determine what's really bothering the other person. Try open-ended queries such as, "What would you like to see happen here?" or "What can we do now to bring about the kind of resolution you'd like?" This is another technique to make the person feel heard, as well as to get them to focus on problem solving rather than blaming. After you reach this step, you can, hopefully, put together a joint plan of action to address the area of conflict.
Finding Another Solution
What if these approaches just don't work? "Not every single conflict, everywhere, can be resolved constructively," admits Evans. If you can't come to a meeting of the minds, you may need to agree to disagree. Another possibility is to take a break and reconvene the discussion later.
If, however, the conflict is ongoing and is profoundly affecting you, it may be time to end the relationship, whether it's a work situation or a relationship with a friend or family member. When you're making this decision ask yourself, "Does this relationship enhance my life or diminish it?" says psychotherapist and relationship expert Mel Schwartz, author of The Art of Intimacy, the Pleasure of Passion. "And when you ask that question, you know the answer immediately."
Before you take this final step, though, Schwartz recommends evaluating your own role in the conflict—especially if you seem to be dealing with more than your share of difficult folks. "If you're running into difficult people in all facets of your life, you're drawing them in," he says. "The question is, why?" By asking what you might be getting from these problematic relationships, you can further your understanding of your own strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Schwartz continues, "Your relationship with others is a mirror of your relationship with yourself."
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Evans S, Cohen SS. Hot Buttons: How to Resolve Conflict and Cool Everyone Down. Cliff Street Books; 2000.
Knaus WJ. Take Charge Now! Powerful Techniques for Breaking the Blame Habit. John Wiley & Sons; 2000.
Schwartz M. The Art of Intimacy, the Pleasure of Passion: Journey Into Soulful Relationships. Quantum Press; 1999.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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