How to Understand and Deal with Difficult People

Written on 9/22/2008 by Michael Miles. Michael writes about personal growth, communication, and increasing personal wealth at Effortless Abundance. You can download his book, Thirty Days to Change Your Life, for free.
Photo Credit: maveric2003

We all meet people who we find difficult to get along with. From people who mildly irritate us to someone we genuinely can’t stand, these situations provide challenges and opportunities.

How can you handle these kinds of situations? Many people will be reactive, immediately responding according to their learned subconscious scripts. For example, many people will get angry and start to attack the aggressor; others will be upset and hurt and will withdraw from the situation as quickly as possible, perhaps harboring some resentment for a long time into the future.

The effective person, however, will be conscious of these scripts and will choose to be proactive, effectively managing the gap which exists between stimulus and response, about which Viktor Frankl writes so movingly and passionately in Man’s Search for Meaning.

How you deal with the situation, however, will need to depend on how important the situation is – if it’s someone you need to work with then you’ll have to put in a lot more work than if it’s someone you don’t see very often.

If you see the person a lot, or you need to work with them, you’re going to have to find a way of building a relationship of some sort. The alternative is a poisonous and destructive situation, which will eat away at you over time.

We have a tendency to think that our way of seeing the world is accurate or ‘correct.’ However, there are many different types of people, all with a different way of seeing things. According to the American Psychologist David Keirsey, there are sixteen different personality types, and this does not take into account such things as gender difference, differences in age, nationality or culture. It is little wonder then that we don’t get along with everybody. In fact, it’s amazing that we get on so well with so many other people!

Sometimes you are going to meet individuals with a very different way of looking at things, so much so, perhaps, that you can hardly agree about anything at all. The key here is to genuinely try to put yourself in the other person’s position and try to see the world as he does.

The fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ People are almost always trying to do the best they can as far as they see it, and it can be an eye opening exercise to truly see things through the eyes of another person. If you are open minded, it can give you a whole new perspective, and it will probably disarm the objectionable other to the extent that you can begin to communicate.

This being said, there are many difficult people who crop up in life who are not going to be around for too long or who are not really important to us. In cases like these, you might find the following simple tips helpful.

Keep it in perspective
Although you should listen to and see what you can learn from them, the opinions’ of other people aren’t actually that important. Nobody has lived your life except you and nobody is in exactly your shoes – you are unique. Sometimes advice is given with the best of intentions, but it is often not really a ‘best fit’ for your situation. Of course, people have various agendas and axes to grind, and there are as many opinions and criticisms as there are people to give them (probably more!) So my advice would be to take all advice and criticism with a big pinch of salt.

Don’t be defensive
Like everyone else, you are trying to do the best you can. You are (probably) not deliberately trying to be mean or selfish or cruel, or to make someone else’s life difficult. So there is no need to be defensive. If other people attack you, let their attacks wash over you – they really can’t hurt you unless you let them. Arguing back, defending your corner or trying to justify yourself often leads to both parties becoming more entrenched. But if your attacker sees that his or her attacks don’t elicit much response, they may well fade away. A phlegmatic and laissez faire approach can often be the best thing.

Don’t take it personally
If you find someone difficult to get along with, chances are you are not the only one. Some people just have a hard time being easy going and they rub a lot of people up the wrong way; it isn’t just you. When someone complains about you, remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said ‘Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.

Look for the lesson you can learn, especially about yourself
Often, people we find difficult can reveal a great deal about ourselves. Ask yourself some searching questions and try to answer honestly. Why do I react to this person in this way? Am I being sensitive about something? Am I trying to hide something? Am I protecting myself against some imaginary threat? Am I missing out on an opportunity to grow and improve?

Sometimes I have found it useful to think of difficult people as Angels sent to teach us something. We usually only grow by experiencing pain, and difficult relationships can be among the most powerful of teachers.

Michael

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