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7 Easy Ways to Deal with Difficult People

Here are seven strategies that will help you to keep calm and carry on.

An illustration by Aura Lewis of a woman standing under an umbrella

Thanksgiving was still a week away, but Susan was already nervous. Her thoughts turned to the previous year’s family gathering, when her aunt had pointed out that Susan was still single—loudly.

“‘Do you think you’ll ever meet a nice guy? Or any guy?’ she shouted across the table,” recalls Susan, a 41-year-old magazine editor. “Then she started ticking off the accomplishments of her own three children. As I tried to tell everyone about my new job, my aunt interrupted, saying, ‘You should focus on getting a man.’”

Difficult people. We encounter them in every area of life: family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, bosses. These are the folks who have nothing nice to say, the bullies and gossips who thrive on drama. The holidays can be particularly fraught.

“We’re told that this is the best time of the year,” says marriage and family therapist Linda Mintle, Ph.D., a nationally recognized expert on relationships. “But long-simmering tensions often come to a head.” At any time of year, an interaction with a difficult person can be confusing, anxiety-inducing and exhausting.

“Difficult people have trouble regulating their emotions,” Dr. Mintle says. “They view any conflict as a personal attack.” Other experts agree: You are unlikely to change someone’s bad behavior. The good news is you can make a plan, control your reaction—and stay sane—while interacting with a difficult person.

Try a little understanding. Start by asking yourself how this person became so difficult, Dr. Mintle suggests. “This is very important, particularly from a Christian point of view,” she says. “People don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a difficult person.’ Did they have a troubled childhood? Have they been hurt in some way? Is there a family issue? Are they under tremendous stress? If you know their background, you can bring kindness, empathy and understanding to the situation.”

Often their faultfinding says more about them than about you. In Susan’s case, her aunt comes from a generation in which a woman’s identity centered on being a wife and mother. Perhaps her aunt can’t fathom that marriage might be other than a woman’s top priority. Or maybe her aunt once wanted a career and, unable to pursue it, resents Susan’s success.

Stay calm. “If someone is blaming or criticizing you, don’t match their intensity,” Dr. Mintle says. “Try not to react.” Take a timeout if necessary. Sometimes “the feeling part of your brain gets triggered, and the thinking part goes offline. Then you need to distract your brain.” She advises counting to 10, deep breathing—and praying for self-control. A fan of the Serenity Prayer, she frequently says the following: “God, help me to not react and to see them as a person made in your image.”

That can mean looking for what’s likeable, even admirable, about them. Dr. Mintle had an uncle who constantly created tension. He goaded her into arguing about politics and criticized everyone in the room. “I tried to find one positive thing about my uncle to focus on,” she says. “I reminded myself that he took care of many people. Then I turned the conversation to sports. We were both huge college football fans, so if we could talk about the big game, we could laugh and defuse the conflict.”

Taking a step back to calm down and reassess is particularly helpful in a tense work situation. Organizational psychologist Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., coauthor of Working With Difficult People, says, “Take a moment before responding. Ask yourself, ‘Is this something I should sit on until I’m more levelheaded or I’ve had better rest or I’m less stressed about other things?’ Let the phone call go to voicemail if you’re not ready to talk. That’s the beauty of caller ID.”

Know your triggers. One way to stop conflict from escalating is to become familiar with your own triggers—those behaviors in others that push your buttons. “Maybe you work with someone who makes you feel crazy,” Dr. Mintle says. “Figure out why. Maybe it’s because he always cuts you off mid-sentence—the exact same way your father did.” Setting aside your own baggage lets you assess the situation more clearly.

“It can help you avoid automatically reacting in a non-productive manner,” Dr. Mintle says.

Go in soft. When it’s time to have a conversation with a difficult person, Dr. Mintle recommends starting softly. “Say, ‘I really value our relationship. There’s something I need to talk to you about.’ Choose your words carefully; make sure you use I and we—not you. Try: ‘I think we both feel upset about the situation. Tell me what you need from me.’”

Dr. Hakim likes the Platinum Rule, which takes the Golden Rule further: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Basically, this reminds us that we all come from different places. What we think is best may not be what is best for the other person. That recognition could change everything.”

Never tell a person that they’re difficult. “It almost always backfires,” Dr. Mintle says. “They don’t see it that way, and it will only exacerbate their anger.” She believes many high-conflict people have personality disorders that leave them with poor impulse control and a need to win at any cost. “You are not going to get anywhere by fighting back. Instead, listen to them and show as much empathy and respect as you can.”

Focus on the facts. Make sure your discussion is about the facts—not the person’s character. “Calmly tell the neighbor that you are upset they built a fence that cuts onto your property,” says Dr. Mintle. “You don’t need to say their house is ugly and all the neighbors hate them. And stick to one issue at a time. Don’t bring up something that happened years ago.”

Taking emotion out of the situation is “the key to managing negative, caustic, difficult workplace relationships effectively,” Dr. Hakim says. “It’s almost as if you were to share the situation with someone who has no stake in it. If you can get your mindset that way, then you’ll be able to be more pragmatic in your approach and recognize when speaking up really matters.”

Set boundaries. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the conflict will escalate. Name-calling, violence and other forms of abuse are never acceptable. “That’s when you need to set boundaries and say, ‘This is not okay.’ Difficult people will test those boundaries and keep pushing you. Stand your ground,” Dr. Mintle says. “You can’t make someone change, but you can respond in a way that is respectful and kind yet doesn’t let them walk all over you.”

Dr. Hakim adds, “In our head, we should be asking, ‘Is this worth it? Is this something I can accept?’ Asserting yourself is important. Sometimes we’re afraid to speak up for fear of being disliked or being labeled in a particular way.”

Forgive. When all else fails, you may need to cut ties. Even then, Dr. Mintle says, having a forgiving attitude is critical. “I think about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. He talked about how you have to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. It’s really hard but really worthwhile.”

She asks God to help the person get the help they need and let her not be part of the problem. “When you hold on to resentment, it impacts your health and well-being. Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.”

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