We all know at least one: a difficult person. Maybe it’s a coworker who seems to have a problem with everything you do. A family member who’s always critical of your choices. Or even a cashier who’s always cranky for no good reason.
Whoever it is, they make your life hard. You may want to change the way they act towards you, gain confidence in reacting to them, or at least become immune to their effects on your feelings.
I’ve met my fair share of difficult people. And as I was pretty terrible at dealing with them, I started researching and thinking a lot about this topic. Below are 5 tips I’ve found have made a significant positive difference — and a few resources to dive deeper into them.
How to deal with difficult people
First things first, everybody deals with difficult people from time to time. In fact, chances are that you've been difficult for others occasionally too.
It's simply unavoidable.
But still, there are some simple and powerful ways to deal with difficult people. These tips will help protect your sanity whenever you're surrounded by difficult people.
1. Remember their actions reflect them, not you
Dealing with difficult people is especially hard if you take things personally. You may get sucked into their state of mind or behavior and find yourself responding in a similar way. Or you might feel like the fact that they are treating you badly is a reflection of who you are. ("If someone is rude to me, I must be someone who deserves to be treated that way.")
These ways of thinking blur the line: where do their actions and perceived thoughts, feelings, and intentions end? Where do your feelings and self-worth, thoughts, feelings, and intentions begin?
The result is always negative. You might begin to act out of character for yourself, or who you want to be. You might let the incident ruin your day and ruminate about it for hours. You might even question who you are and the way you act. And, you can’t deal effectively with this difficult person.
I've struggled with this first tip the most out of all 5. If you're a highly sensitive person and place a lot of weight on how others perceive you, you probably do too. What I've found has helped is a rather funny-sounding exercise: think of yourself as a character in a movie. When you watch something in the third person, you can see clearly that when one person is acting poorly, it has nothing to do with the second one. How the second person chooses to respond is the only thing that can affect your opinion of them.
It can be difficult to see this in the heat of the moment when you’re experiencing something firsthand. So it might help to practice entering into this way of thinking during calm moments. Imagine watching yourself in the third person, like you are one of many characters in a story. You're simply only in control of one body and privy to one mind’s thoughts.
A second strategy that can help you isolate your identity and actions is to remember these two things or variations of them:
- Just because they say something doesn’t mean it’s true.
- Just because you don’t say something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
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2. Keep things in perspective
When you’re dealing with a difficult person, you have no idea what’s hiding beneath the surface of their frustrating behavior. But you can be sure it isn’t peace and well-being. Nobody acts difficult because they’re just so happy with life, right?
Everyone knows the phrase “hurt people hurt people” — and also, “everybody’s got some problems.” Though you may not know what they are, you can be almost sure that behind the person’s actions is some kind of pain and trauma.
This doesn’t excuse their behavior or make it okay, or mean that you just have to put up with it. But it can soften you up with enough compassion to approach the situation in a better way than snapping back at them.
For example, I know someone who has a bit of a difficult personality. They can react harshly for seemingly no reason, or randomly get into bad moods where they become rather unpleasant. I used to get pretty upset over this. I wanted to make them realize how they were being and apologize — which only made things worse.
But eventually, I found out that they had an extremely strained family situation. When they opened up to me about it, I understood that their behavior must come from all the painful feelings surfacing, triggered by things I didn’t even realize.
I thought to myself, “If they can go through what they went through and come out of it with the good qualities and kindness they have, then I can have the kindness and compassion to let it go when they can’t manage everything perfectly.”
3. Lead with kindness and understanding
Once I was dealing with a friend who was going completely berserk. He has had a difficult life and a lot of emotional turmoil. Something had triggered him and he entered into a mental state of complete pain and started lashing out at me. As he was spewing hate, I walked up to him and gave him a hug. He was so stunned that he stopped mid-sentence and hugged me back.
Showing someone kindness when they’re being difficult can hold up a mirror to them. It stops them dead in their tracks because they expect you to snap back – which gives them more fuel to continue being difficult. When you show them the completely opposite approach, it extinguishes the fire instead. You highlight the stark contrast between your attitude and theirs and show them a better way.
If this feels unfair, I get it. Why should you have to be nice to someone when they’re being difficult? But think about this: how do you want to contribute to the world? Do you want to support and fan the flames of difficult behavior and negativity? Or do you want to be a force for good, influencing people to be better and kinder people?
When you take this approach, you let go of any inkling of “putting them in their place.” This kind of thinking usually involves mind games in order to make the person feel bad. But we are all humans, and we are all hurting on some level. What would you gain by making that worse?
Of course, I’m not suggesting you hug every person who is mean to you. There are boundaries that shouldn't be crossed, as we'll talk about next. But we can use this principle to stop passing on hate and instead turn it into compassion and love.
If this idea intrigues you, try reading The Seat of The Soul by Gary Zukav. It has truly groundbreaking thoughts and will probably completely transform the way you approach not just difficult people, but life in general.
4. Enforce healthy boundaries
We've just talked about how to deal with difficult people by responding with kindness. But, this does not mean becoming a doormat and letting people treat you however they want.
You can respond to a difficult person with kindness, and still let them know you’re not willing to tolerate their behavior. With the friend I mentioned above, I didn’t know how to do this and he kept lashing out at me time and time again. I soon had to end the friendship as I wasn’t able to help him and he was having a big effect on my own mental well-being.
If I could do the experience over again, I would find a way to explain to him that I want him to heal and am willing to hear him out, but only if he can do it calmly and respectfully.
In his book The Earned Life, Marshall Goldsmith talks about “the agency of no choice.” He gives the example of weekly meetings at Ford. All employees had to attend, speak for a maximum of 5 minutes, and remain polite and positive throughout the whole meeting. If someone wasn’t able to stick by these rules, they would have no choice but to leave the company. They weren’t being fired — they were firing themselves.
I believe the same kind of principle can apply to difficult people. You can’t control their behavior, but you can give them only one choice for how they can act towards you. Otherwise, you will not interact with them.
If you'd like to know more about setting healthy boundaries, I have written a detailed guide which you can find here.
5. Ask them about it when things are calm
A lot of problems can be solved by gaining a deeper understanding of them. When things are calm, you can approach the difficult person and try to find out what's behind their behavior.
Preparing what you want to say, at least roughly, can go a long way. Thinking of what to say on the fly can let conflictive thoughts or poor word choices slip out that spark up conflict. I’ve found these tips, from a range of books and podcasts on communication, to be very useful:
- Start by talking about pure facts, which nobody can dispute.
- Then, comment on your reaction to this situation using “I” statements.
- Express a positive goal for the conversation with benefit to you both
- Ask an open-ended question that expresses genuine curiosity without judgment or accusation
Here’s a rough idea of what this could look like:
“I noticed that when XYZ happens, you often say ABC or do DEF. I find this surprising because MNO and I’m not quite sure I understand why that happens. I’d like to understand so that I can support our friendship in a way where both of us can be happy. Would you be willing to explain to me what goes on in your mind at those moments?”
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Dealing with difficult people is, well… difficult. No two people are the same, so there isn’t any single guide to how to deal with them. There are many factors to consider, but I hope the 5 tips above can help you find a good strategy.
What has worked best for you when dealing with difficult people? Help others like you and share in the comments below!