How to deal with difficult people? It’s one of the most frequent questions I’m asked in my workshops and by readers, friends, and grad students. Here’s my strategy for dealing with difficult people and why it so consistently works.
Occasionally I am difficult. I don’t set out to be difficult and I may not even consider myself as “being difficult” in that moment. But I can tell by the other person’s reaction that they are considering me difficult.
Does that make me a difficult person? Probably not, because I am only occasionally difficult and that is human nature.
What if I am repeatedly difficult with the same person but not with most others in my life? Does that make me a difficult person? Probably not, because it is just one dynamic that I handle poorly.
What if I am repeatedly difficult with the same people in a specific setting, but not with others in my life? Does that make me a difficult person? While a few might say yes, most would probably still say no, because it’s a certain context that’s bringing out the worst in me but I am not routinely difficult with most people in my life.
So where is the tipping point? What does it take for someone to deserve the brand of “difficult person”? When I ask this question in my workshops, people often reply, “When someone is difficult with most of the people in their lives with some frequency.”
That seems a reasonable answer, but it has a significant problem associated with it: How can you know it’s true if you are not with that person all the time?
Since it’s rare to be with someone in all parts of their life and most of the time, you can’t really know and so it would be much fairer to consider them not as difficult in general but difficult to you or in certain settings or circumstances.
Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler put it this way: “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”
So one problem with trying to figure out how to deal with “difficult people” is that it’s virtually impossible to fairly and legitimately know they are difficult people for sure. That thinking error (“He’s difficult to me right here right now so he must be a difficult person”) then spawns myriad additional problems:
My strategy for dealing with difficult people is this: I don’t try. I recognize that the difficulty I’m experiencing with them is in “the between,” to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Haidt. “The between” is the space between us.
Instead, I ask myself what behavior that is irritating, obstructing, or confounding me or someone else. Focusing on a specific behavior has far better outcomes because…
I’ve written a fair amount here on difficult behaviors during conflict and I’ll no doubt write more. Here are some audience favorites:
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