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Dealing with Difficult People

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Can you recall the last time you had to deal with a negative or difficult person? Or the last time someone said something with the intention of hurting you? How did you handle it? What was the result? What can you do in the future to get through these situations with peace and grace?

No matter where we go, we will face people who are negative, people who oppose our ideas, people who piss us off or people who simply do not like us. There are 6.4 billion people out there and conflict is a fact of life. This fact isn’t the cause of conflict but it is the trigger to our emotions and our emotions are what drive us back to our most basic survival instinct; react and attack back to defend ourselves.

In these instinctual moments, we may lose track of our higher selves and become the human animal with an urge to protect ourselves when attacked. This too is natural. However, we are the only animal blessed with intelligence and having the ability to control our responses. So how can we do that?

I regularly get asked “How do you deal with the negative comments about your articles? They are brutal. I don’t think I could handle them.” My answer is simple, “I don’t let it bother me to begin with.” It wasn’t always this simple, and took me some time before overcoming this natural urgency to protect myself and attack back.

I know it’s not easy, if it was easy, there wouldn’t be difficult or negative people to begin with.

Why Bother Controlling Our Responses?

1. Hurting Ourselves

One of my favorite sayings is “Holding a grudge against someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” The only person we hurt is ourselves. When we react to negativity, we are disturbing our inner space and mentally creating pain within ourselves.

2. It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

I’ve learned that when people initiate negativity, it is a reflection of their inner state expressed externally and you just happen to be in front of that expression. It’s not personal, so why do we take it personally? In short: Because our ego likes problems and conflict. People are often so bored and unhappy with their own lives that they want to take others down with them.

There have been many times when a random person has left a purposefully hurtful comment on TSN, and regularly checked back to see if anyone else responded to their comment, waiting eagerly to respond with more negativity.

3. Battle of the Ego

When we respond impulsively, it is a natural and honest response. However, is it the smart thing to do? What can be resolved by doing so? The answer: Nothing. It does however feed our ego’s need for conflict.

Have you noticed that when we fight back, it feels really satisfying in our heads? But it doesn’t feel very good in our soul? Our stomach becomes tight, and we start having violent thoughts?

When we do respond irrationally, it turns the conversation from a one-sided negative expression into a battle of two egos. It becomes an unnecessary and unproductive battle for Who is Right?

4. Anger Feeds Anger. Negativity Feeds Negativity.

Rarely can any good come out of reacting against someone who is in a negative state. It will only trigger anger and an additional reactive response from that person. If we do respond impulsively, we’ll have invested energy in the defending of ourselves and we’ll feel more psychologically compelled to defend ourselves going forward.

Have you noticed that the angrier our thoughts become, the angrier we become? It’s a negative downward spiral.

5. Waste of Energy

Where attention goes, energy flows. What we focus on tends to expand itself. Since we can only focus on one thing at a time, energy spent on negativity is energy that could have been spent on our personal wellbeing.

6. Negativity Spreads

I’ve found that once I allow negativity in one area of my life, it starts to subtly bleed into other areas as well. When we are in a negative state or holding a grudge against someone, we don’t feel very good. We carry that energy with us as we go about our day. When we don’t feel very good, we lose sight of clarity and may react unconsciously to matters in other areas of our lives, unnecessarily.

7. Freedom of Speech

People are as entitled to their opinions as you are. Allow them to express how they feel and let it be. Remember that it’s all relative and a matter of perspective. What we consider positive can be perceived by another as negative. When we react, it becomes me-versus-you, who is right?

Some people may have a less than eloquent way of expressing themselves – it may even be offensive, but they are still entitled to do so. They have the right to express their own opinions and we have the right and will power to choose our responses. We can choose peace or we can choose conflict.

15 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

While I’ve had a lot of practice dealing with negativity, it is something I find myself having to actively work on. When I’m caught off guard and end up resorting to a defensive position, the result rarely turns out well.

The point is, we are humans after all, and we have emotions and egos. However, by keeping our egos in-check and inserting emotional intelligence, we’ll not only be doing a favor for our health and mental space, but we’ll also have intercepted a situation that would have gone bad, unnecessarily.

Photo by Kara Pecknold

Here are some tips for dealing with a difficult person or negative message:

1. Forgive

What would the Dali Lama do if he was in the situation? He would most likely forgive. Remember that at our very core, we are good, but our judgment becomes clouded and we may say hurtful things. Ask yourself, “What is it about this situation or person that I can seek to understand and forgive?

2. Wait it Out

Sometimes I feel compelled to instantly send an email defending myself. I’ve learned that emotionally charged emails never get us the result we want; they only add oil to the fire. What is helpful is inserting time to allow ourselves to cool off. You can write the emotionally charged email to the person, just don’t send it off. Wait until you’ve cooled off before responding, if you choose to respond at all.

3. “Does it really matter if I am right?

Sometimes we respond with the intention of defending the side we took a position on. If you find yourself arguing for the sake of being right, ask “Does it matter if I am right?” If yes, then ask “Why do I need to be right? What will I gain?

4. Don’t Respond

Many times when a person initiates a negative message or difficult attitude, they are trying to trigger a response from you. When we react, we are actually giving them what they want. Let’s stop the cycle of negative snowballing and sell them short on what they’re looking for; don’t bother responding.

5. Stop Talking About It

When you have a problem or a conflict in your life, don’t you find that people just love talking about it? We end up repeating the story to anyone who’ll listen. We express how much we hate the situation or person. What we fail to recognize in these moments is that the more we talk about something, the more of that thing we’ll notice.

Example, the more we talk about how much we dislike a person, the more hate we will feel towards them and the more we’ll notice things about them that we dislike. Stop giving it energy, stop thinking about it, and stop talking about it. Do your best to not repeat the story to others.

6. Be In Their Shoes

As cliché as this may sound, we tend to forget that we become blind-sided in the situation. Try putting yourself in their position and consider how you may have hurt their feelings. This understanding will give you a new perspective on becoming rational again, and may help you develop compassion for the other person.

7. Look for the Lessons

No situation is ever lost if we can take away from it some lessons that will help us grow and become a better person. Regardless of how negative a scenario may appear, there is always a hidden gift in the form of a lesson. Find the lesson(s).

8. Choose to Eliminate Negative People In Your Life

Negative people can be a source of energy drain. And deeply unhappy people will want to bring you down emotionally, so that they are not down there alone. Be aware of this. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands and do not mind the energy drain, I recommend that you cut them off from your life.

Cut them out by avoiding interactions with them as much as possible. Remember that you have the choice to commit to being surrounded by people who have the qualities you admire: optimistic, positive, peaceful and encouraging people. As Kathy Sierra said, “Be around the change you want to see in the world.”

9. Become the Observer

When we practice becoming the observer of our feelings, our thoughts and the situation, we separate ourselves away from the emotions. Instead of identifying with the emotions and letting them consume us, we observe them with clarity and detachment. When you find yourself identifying with emotions and thoughts, bring your focus on your breathe.

10. Go for a Run

… or a swim, or some other workout. Physical exercise can help to release the negative and excess energy in us. Use exercise as a tool to clear your mind and release built up negative energy.

11. Worst Case Scenario

Ask yourself two questions,

  1. If I do not respond, what is the worst thing that can result from it?
  2. If I do respond, what is the worst thing that can result from it?

Answering these questions often adds perspectives to the situation, and you’ll realize that nothing good will come out of reacting. Your energy will be wasted, and your inner space disturbed.

12. Avoid Heated Discussions

When we’re emotionally charged, we are so much in our heads that we argue out of an impulse to be right, to defend ourselves, for the sake of our egos. Rationality and resolution can rarely arise out of these discussions. If a discussion is necessary, wait until everyone has cooled off before diving into one.

13. Most Important

List out things in your life most important to you. Then ask yourself, “Will a reaction to this person contribute to the things that matter most to me?

14. Pour Honey

This doesn’t always work, but sometimes catches people off guard when they’re trying to “Pour Poison” on you. Compliment the other person for something they did well, tell them you’ve learned something new through interacting with them, and maybe offer to become friends. Remember to be genuine. You might have to dig deep to find something that you appreciate about this person.

15. Express It

Take out some scrap paper and dump all the random and negative thoughts out of you by writing freely without editing. Continue to do so until you have nothing else to say. Now, roll the paper up into a ball, close your eyes and visualize that all the negative energy is now inside that paper ball. Toss the paper ball in the trash. Let it go!

** How do you deal with difficult people? What has worked well for you in the past? How do you cool down when you’re all fired up and angry? Share your thoughts in the comments. See you there!


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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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449 thoughts on Dealing with Difficult People

  1. Mettleurge

    We’ve got an asshole in the office who has been there forever, holds tight controls over as much work as she can, is condescending and critical of everyone who tries to do better, and has no advanced analytical or production skills to compensate for her being such a jerk.

    I want anonymously advise the superiors that all our personal productivity is being inhibited by the pervasive hostility of that person.

    We have good mornings, until she comes in, and then open communication stops. We all try to get as much done early before she shows up with her bad attitude, and pray we didn’t make any mistakes that require revision.

    I’m quitting as soon as I get this other thing going, and I will state clearly that I have seen other operations fail for exactly the same reason that this one will, bad attitude.

    Management is passive, assuming nothing is wrong as long as deadlines are met, which in my opinion is a pathetically minimal requirement.

    No one volunteers for anything during the day. It’s sad. SO much talent going to waste because of one unhappy wretch that management won’t simply segregate form the rest of us. This has been going on for years. She will not change. I’ve lived long enough to see many people come and go, and this person didn’t get this way overnight and no one believes it if she tries to fake up a positive supportive attitude for a day or two, at which point she descends back into a bitter funk and takes it out on anyone within reach.

    There are no overt grounds for complaint. She’s far to experienced at her methods and has been warned numerous times, but she feels superior to all management and practically dares them to dismiss her.

    It’s sad, and I believe characteristic of many so-called progressive organizations who hide behind their “open-door” passivity, hoping nothing will really go wrong. They just have no idea how much productivity and creativiity they are losing out on by not knocking this type of miserable ape off his or her perch.

  2. Keshav

    Great article with real facts .. thanks for sharing. :-)

  3. yssubramanyam

    there are no difficult people, it is our toughest mind..
    self inquiry is the best tool..

  4. These are great tips for reframing a conflict, which is especially important if the other person is perpetually difficult to get along with.

    I saw your post on pinterest and noticed the photo you used… you must have picked a different one, bc it isn’t the one floating around on pinterest. So this is random, but I love the photographer of the photo you first used (the two girls, with one screaming the other leaning back). Her photos are my favorite for blog posts. Her flickr is Pink Sherbert Photography.

  5. Karno

    Insightful post! Couldn’t agree more. I especially liked the section on why it is important to control our responses. Strategies for dealing with difficult people was so helpful! Thanks.

    Just from my own experience, I found humour is a great way to respond with difficult or negative people. Sometimes, humour releases the tension and is a great way to foster a working relationship. What do you think?

  6. Kris Heidenstrom

    This advice is excellent! I’ve only read a few bits so far, but it shows a depth of understanding of the human psyche that is rare. I will be studying this article, and others on this site, with my partner, to cement and enhance ideas that we have figured out ourselves. I’m very glad to have found this site. Thank you!

  7. smbauti

    Thanks for the advice! I’ll be sure to apply them when I run into these types of people.

  8. Nadroj

    Great ideas! I just had quite a frustrating episode with a someone a while ago because of his haughty, aggressive and inappropriate attitude but we know better as professionals not to be overwhelmed and intimidated by such acts.

  9. Well said, thanks for sharing such insightful tips. I recently lost my cool with my own family when some plans didn’t work out as I had expected them to and I almost let it ruin my Christmas.

  10. melissa

    I understand that not allowing someone to disturb your peace by letting them say what they have to, forgiving them, putting yourself in their shoes, taking the higher road, etc… But what if that person becomes disrespectful and begins to call you names and say things that are hurting your self-esteem? How do you react? Not saying nothing and trying to be rational, I believe, will only allow them to continue to behave that way because they know you will not defend yourself. Being dormant is not an option but spewing out the same obscenities they are doesn’t help either. How should you react in situations like this?

  11. Esmi

    I agree with many of the points, especially 8. Unless you are a psychologist, understanding peoples issues can be a minefield. Goodness knows what place those comments come from and how to quench them, if at all. But certainly, forgiving does help to eliminate them from your heart and cutting them eliminates them from your environment at large.

  12. casablanca

    In reply to Melissa (Jan 3, 2013) — I’ve been there, done that. Had a very, very difficult person (family member, not a spouse) in my life for over 20 years. I will call him Jake. I was always the forgiving & understanding half of the relationship. Always. I took Jake’s occasional tantrums, rants, anger rages & insults for longer than I should have. Yes, Jake was emotionally abusive (never physical) with his anger & rage. Only reason I stayed with him was because of other family ties & bonds. Not the easiest to break away from. What I did is Not the correct way to deal with them. So, at some point, without any explanation, I just stopped communicating & totally cut ties with Jake. What did Jake do? He started to spread rumors and tell bold face lies to relatives. I was quite surprised at this behavior as I thought he was more mature than to stoop that low. What I had done was angered him even more, and now relatives believe his lies and I am not in position to defend myself with relatives. Also, I no longer have the bonds I spoke of at the beginning of my comment. So… what I should have done was simply tell him this: “I respect you & I treat you respectfully, I expect you to treat me respectfully too. If you can’t control your anger, than I will no longer be able to be friends with you.” Of course doing this might anger them also. The outcome may be the same as what I actually did. But at least you are being up front, letting them know you have boundaries. You will be more or less – giving them the option to stop disrespecting you. It is now their choice. I never gave Jake an option. (he is VERY argumentative and logic never worked with Jake) Hope this helps….

  13. some people scare me with unhappy emotional abuse

    It seems nowdays been forgiving and praying for the same people. Its sad that this behavior is tolerated in today’s society. More and more standards and human couples don’t raise their children. Also hide to others a picture esque light that everything is ok and live with ignorance above others in their families. People need to understand that in life there is cause and effect. In my case alot of women in my family seem to use me on facebook. I notice certain people who take upon situations and public to embarass me. It makes me feel unhappy that if I bother to confront then nothing gets done but praise and the need to be little me again and again. Aren’t people suppossed to uplift or just remind a person that she is wanted in today’s world. everything will come back and hit them like a freight train.

  14. I think before you think of other people as “difficult”, find out about yourself first.

  15. I’ve certainly come a long way in dealing with difficult people, especially the bullies at the workplace. I recalled when one of the senior workmates told me off that “I don’t belong to this place”, I almost lost my cool. But I summoned sufficient courage and reported the incident to the manager who immediately took action to counsel the staff member. The latter glared at me with great intimidation but I just turned the other way. Following this incidence I was told later that she had to take several days’ sick leave due to some jaw infection. Was this a co-incidence or is it Divine intervention?

  16. Brigitte

    The article is very good. I,myself applied to these tips from childood to adult life.You cannot make negative people to take theirs own responsibilities or change negative characteristics.Its like teaching an old dog a new trick. You dont know how ,where , or what theirs mental states are. The best thing to do is by not letting the negative people under your skins. Breath,listen and smile. You can also tell them to take a deep breath,too!

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  21. John Curtis

    Things are far easier said than done.

    It’s not always possible to distance yourself from difficult and reactionary people, particularly if they are you’re fellow co-workers.

    I have actively tried many of these things suggested on the list and I have come to the conclusion that words are cheap and count for very little in reality.

    If people do not get along (e.g. perhaps they have different personalities, etc.) then there is very little you can do to rectify the situation. There will always be anxiety and tension because people who do not get along – ultimately don’t like each other and don’t want to be around each other for that reason.

  22. Tina, a brilliant article! Dealing with people is never easy but it is something you can practise and get better at. The key thing to ask is why does that person bother you? Remember, nobody can hurt us with their words unless we give them permission to do so… and until we start to believe that maybe what they said is true. That philosophy isn’t always easy to follow… and I certainly still struggle with this. But as with all adversity, every time we have to deal with a difficult person, it gives us an opportunity to practise, to learn and to become a better person from the experience, if we choose. Often the negative person won’t go away (especially if it’s a work colleague or a family member) but we can choose to reduce the impact they have on us, using the tips you shared. Thanks again!

  23. Mary Rollin

    Sometimes I think people who are jealous of others treat them badly because they really do not like their own behavior, It’s easier to be nasty for them than to admit admiration for a good example set by someone they would like to emulate. Try being nice and see what turns out; stop being so negative, remember, Easier to smile than frown all the time! Make yourself feel better by being emotionally nice to youtself, Do unto others as you would to yourelf. if miserable to yourself,have anice day!!!! Just keep grumping along. The merry widow,bye!

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