How to Deal with Difficult People

Dealing with Difficult People

We all know someone who gets under our skin. They could be passive-aggressive, lack empathy, or simply have an annoying or difficult personality type that is in stark contrast to our own personal values –and they drive us crazy! Perhaps you dread interactions with these types of people because you know it will leave you feeling frustrated, patronized, devalued or seething with rage because of something they said or did. Believe it or not, you don’t have to avoid difficult people altogether.  Here is some advice for how to deal with them while maintaining your own sanity.

dealing with difficult people

Why do I dislike this person so much?

When being around a difficult person triggers negative emotions, it can take a toll on our mental health. Even if you don’t react to them in the moment, suppressing your own feelings can be harmful to your overall mental well-being.

Author and certified wellness coach Allaya Cooks-Campbell suggests that first you must recognize how a difficult person’s behavior makes you feel; Do interactions with them leave you feeling angry, sad, insulted, or dismissed? She says, “Being able to label the feelings helps to pull you out of reactivity mode and into curiosity — a much more productive (and less explosive) space.” Once you can name your feelings and be aware of exactly what the negative reaction is you are having, then you can move on to taking the following actions that will help you to actively cope with the person for a more positive outcome:

Don’t engage or reciprocate in arguments with difficult people

When dealing with difficult people you should always avoid divisive topics and personal issues such as religion and politics. If the other person tries to talk about these subjects (or something closely related that could open a door to conflict) and you know going into it that you will not agree with their side, then avoid taking the bait. You probably know by now how conversations in these subject matters can be unproductive and with a difficult person they are more likely to devolve into insults, personal attacks or other unfavorable outcomes. 

Try and remember that sometimes difficult people say things for the sake of instigating a disagreement. However, that doesn’t mean you have to engage.  If they are yelling, it is natural for us to want to yell back. If they are insulting, it’s natural to want to say something hurtful in response. However, these reactions usually will not make you feel better. Think of this as you being more mindful of your own self-care. When you make a conscious decision not to participate in an argument or disagreement you are actually saving yourself time and energy. If we intentionally avoid these discussions, we also avoid the onset of negative emotions and the unpleasant physiological reactions that come with them (increased blood pressure, anxiety, headaches, and sleeplessness after-the-fact). Preserve your mental health and choose a different path.

Don’t expect difficult people to change 

Here’s something everyone says that is easier said than done:  Remember to focus on what is under your control. Another person’s thoughts, words and personality type are, unfortunately, not something any of us can control.  In addition, a person who is difficult is likely not this way because of anything you said or did.  The even harsher reality is, they are probably lacking the awareness and emotional self-control needed to react any differently under stress. So, rather than focus on how they might react or behave in situations, try focusing on yourself and your own choice words and actions. 

So, what does that look like? Here’s an example: If someone tells you, “Anyone who thinks like that is stupid…”, your gut reaction may be to defend yourself or call them stupid.  Instead, try this approach: listen to learn. Let the other person keep speaking and explain their rationale. You can do this in a way that is even complementary by saying something like, “Wow, it’s nice to hear a different opinion and to consider this from all sides. Thank you for being so honest and telling me how you feel.”  You don’t have to agree with them, but interrupting or being defensive will not diffuse or make them any less opinionated (or grating).

Verbal and de-escalation tips for difficult people

If the person is already upset and being difficult, here are some ways you can de-escalate the situation. Try slowing down before you speak, practicing good active listening habits (not arms folded or eyes-rolling), pay attention to your breathing (make sure you aren’t sighing), and choose words carefully. Rather than telling someone, “You aren’t making any sense,” try saying this instead: “Can you help me understand what you mean?” You might be surprised how controlling the tone of the interaction and being more intentional with words can lighten the mood. 

In addition to practicing your calm breathing and active listening, pay attention to the hidden need. Difficult people are generally motivated by something —whether it be power, money, attention, control. Figure out what drives them and it might give you better insight as to why they behave a certain way. Dr Samantha Rodman, Clinical Psychologist, says of this topic, “It can be transformative to realize that a difficult person is that way because of their own history and personality, and that your behavior plays a much smaller role in how they respond to you than you might think.” Sometimes, just having a better understanding of a person and their pain points will help you to better manage your reactions and feelings of contempt.

Stay fluid – there is no “one size fits all” solution

dealing with difficult people

Always keep in mind that every person is unique and there is no magic formula for getting along with everyone, all the time. Your goal should be to feel satisfied with your own choice words and behaviors and you can do that by staying true to yourself and your values, no matter how difficult someone else is being. Practicing your own emotional self-control and measured responses will go a long way in preventing another person’s thoughts, words and behaviors from rattling you to the point of physical or mental anguish. 


Talkspace: Four tips to dealing with difficult people