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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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462 thoughts on Dealing with Difficult People

  1. I tend to flow with the conversation and let them say whatever in their mind. They can say anything they think of and it doesn’t matter to me because sometimes it’s only in their head.

    But if they make the issue public, I would make my opinions heard too for sure, but not pushing them.
    It worked quite well I think. Some of the people who have been difficult to my friends, express a different attitude towards me. They “demand less” :)

  2. Good stuff Tina! I’ve found that if a negative person insults you and you take it to heart, it often shows a fear or shame that you have not examined or accepted fully. For instance, if someone accuses me of being a ten eyed monster, I probably won’t feel much beyond laughter. If someone called me a liar, or something, I might feel some anger or defensiveness, even if I never lied to him. But obviously I have lied to other people in the past, and I might not have fully accepted or forgiven myself for that.

    Albert | UrbanMonk.Net
    Modern personal development, entwined with ancient spirituality.

  3. The most powerful thing for me with dealing with difficult people, or everyone for that matter, is not taking things personally. Just that one agreement has the power to completely transform your life.

    After all, I think we have enough to worry about ourselves. We waste too much time worrying about the opinions and approval of others. Like you said Tina, it’s not about us anyway. It’s about them.

    Jonathan – Re-claim ownership of your Mind.

  4. I like points #1 and #9. Currently, I’m practicing no judging and to exercise compassion for others. Instead of cursing under my breath like how I used to, I just assume that the other party is having a bad day, or simply very unaware of his or her own negativity (it’s like what you said that the outward expression is a reflection of one’s internal emotional state). As I observe the negative behavior with detachment, I can’t help but feel compassion.

  5. Become the observer and pour some honey… Brilliant wording! I think these are the easiest way to not only avoid but completely dissolve a difficult situation or person. If you look at WHY they might be reacting it gives you some room to help and if you return in kindness instead of in kind, you can quickly diffuse someone who is upset no matter the reason.

  6. HIB

    Great post! I’m a first time visitor and I really enjoy your blog. Great stuff!

  7. In a direct confrontation situation, i.e. face to face or on the phone, I find one of the best things to do is to just pause, and breathe. I mean, really breathe deeply and consciously. Sometime it means I stop talking for about 30 seconds or so mid stream. This has several effects:

    1. the breathing physically relaxes my mind/body
    2. the pause sometimes make the other person stop and take stock of the situation, which sometimes means they calm right down
    3. the pause gives them ample opportunity to vent and expend their negative energy so we can restart the conversation in a calmer manner

    Oddly, I find that doing this almost always makes me smile. I don’t know if it is an ‘oxygen buzz’ or the genuine letting go of stress but I usually get some funny imagery or see the funny side of the situation!

  8. Eng. Hasan Al-Bahkali

    Nice blog

  9. Tina,

    Some great suggestions here! I would have to agree with the point on going for a run. If something or someone frustrates you, the best way to flush out the negative feelings are to burn it off with a run or a tough workout.

    Thanks for your post.

  10. The picture of the woman drinking from the bottle of wine caught me completely by surprise. It made me laugh out loud. Thanks.



    hahaha.. I put that there since I found it to be funny and ironically appropriate. :) Glad you got the joke.


  11. I love how all of your articles have such a personal touch, even on topics like this one that we all deal with.

    I used to deal with difficult people by just shutting down. Now I like to take a step back and relax before I “react”. Usually by thinking about something else I will see the situation differently. Also I like to ask myself: will this really matter to me in 10 years from now?

  12. Don’t Respond is the biggie.

    If they are truly negative, they are hanging out WAITING for you to rise to the bait. If you ignore them, it hurts them more.

    Not that I’m a vindictive person, but if someone is out to hurt you and you appear unfazed, it really irks them.

    If they aren’t and have a valid point, you probably will realise that within a day or two and be able to talk it through

  13. deeesseee

    This article is stupid.
    You are stupid.
    This whole website is stupid.

    Only joking, hope I didn’t get to you. Great article, like always. Definitely one that I wish I could really take to heart.

  14. Snoop Digg

    How I deal with difficult people:

    1. First I take a deep, calming breath and think about puppies.
    2. I sew an entire blanket to keep my mind off the trouble.
    3. I eat two bags of cheetos.
    4. I adopt a Vietnamese child.
    5. I eat pork rinds.
    6. I kick the difficult person in the groin.

  15. Just Joking

    Just punch them in the face. Problem solved :)

  16. Jennifer

    Loved your idea’s. Will be sure to use them. Glad I found this website.

  17. Milliner

    You ought to read David Viscott, MD’s book, “Emotional Resilience.” This article touches on a lot of concepts, but offers no technique for accomplishing them. Telling people to “forgive” doesn’t tell them anything; people may know what word implies, but they don’t know how to do it; I sure didn’t. In order to forgive one has to admit one’s own partial responsibility, and not only recognize that the other person is a human being who makes mistakes, who was raised a certain way, but that they have to forgive themselves for the same reasons.

  18. Wow. This article is beautiful, and I feel that it is truly serendipitous that it came my way today!! Thank you!

  19. Timing of this couldn’t be better. Just started my new cubicle job with hostile co-workers.

  20. Apologize! I work with the public in a grocery store. Be careful what you apologize for. I typically apologize for the “confusion” most of the time. If someone is angry, I’ll try to stay calm and ask questions. It’s often a misunderstanding and a lot of times I apologize that I can’t help them anymore. Sometimes I can think of something that “might” help them. ie. a package sauce instead of the bottled sauce they were looking for and we might be out of. Most people just want to be heard and have their opinion respected, even if you think it is “off the wall.” Saying “I never thought of it that way.” gives them credit for “originality” and following up with a smile or something silly like “Well, we have to let the competition win sometimes!” Or “Of course, I was hired for my looks…and yes that was a loooong time ago!”

  21. Paul

    A lot of very sensible advice which I will refer back to often.

    My one concern is about cutting negative people out of your life. Seen this advice around a lot. It seems unduly selfish since you have already said they are just bored and unhappy.

    Everyone gets negative once in a while, some people more than others, but often with good cause. It would be a terrible world if people thought that they should cut out everyone they know who has any kind of problem. Anyone could suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of this summary punishment.

    Intelligent balanced people can benefit themselves and gain a deeper understanding of the world by trying to understand less happy people and becoming a positive influence in their lives. The skills you learn will benefit you in your career in negotiations and in your relationships with other people who have more admirable qualities.

  22. Zach

    I totally disagree with the overall passive strategy. In general there are 3 ways to respond to a conflict: Passively, Aggressively, and Assertively. You’re suggesting it is almost always appropriate to be passive, where as I believe 90% of the time, an assertive response is appropriate.

    I think we let people get away with bad behavior too often, and not confronting them reinforces that behavior. Imagine someone steps on your foot at the grocery store, then gives you a dirty look and says “get out of my way.” What if someone does the same thing to a 10 year old child? Damn right I’m going to confront them. I’ll tell them “That was extremely rude. You don’t treat people like that.” Are they going to apologize and make amends? Maybe, but probably not. They’ll probably just yell at you or say more rude things to you. That’s when you can say “This conversation is over”, and walk away. You may still be angry, but you’ll feel a lot better than if you had done nothing. And you’ve shown the rude person that there are consequences to bad behavior. If they’re going to treat people poorly, they’re going to hear about it. Is that a strong enough consequence? Ideally, perhaps not, but it’s much better than nothing and only takes you a few extra seconds.

    As I mentioned, around 90% of the time, and assertive response is appropriate. However I do agree there are times when it is appropriate to be passive. For example, if being assertive would put your life or job in jeopardy, a passive response is probably the best choice. If someone cuts you off in traffic and gives you the finger, it’s probably not worth your time to follow him, wait for him to stop, and then confront him on his rude behavior. Similarly there are times when it is appropriate to be aggressive. If someone is threatening your life or the life of a loved one, and you see no way to escape, you should probably be aggressive and fight back.

    The “just don’t let it bother you” strategy is unrealistic. Again, imagine someone runs over your 10 year old son’s foot with a grocery cart, then sneers and says “get out of my way you little brat”. You’re probably going to be furious, and justifiably so. If you’re passive, you’re just going to be more angry for not standing up for yourself and your child.

    Instead of following the advice in this article, I encourage everyone to be more assertive in these types of situations. People are rude because they think they can get away with it without consequences, So take a few seconds of your time and show them they can’t. You’ll feel a lot better and maybe they’ll think twice before acting that way again.

  23. Scott

    Just be careful that you remain in the right state of mind when subjecting yourself to people who have this habit. Note your physiological tendency to react on the level that they initiate and the importance of maintaining a clarity communicated in the article. If you cannot maintain a pure and healthy state, remove this person and practice on someone less powerful or persistent until your skills allow a return attempt. Learning to surf in 10ft waves isn’t the best starting point. Graduating to 10ft waves from 8ft waves holds much more promise of growth.

    #9 should be #1 in my opinion, causing most of the remaining points to be unnecessary. #9 is a tremendous tool to take with you into any situation or relationship. Reason being that your emotions are accurate indicators of your perceptions of your situation. Once you get an objective read on those perceptions, only then can you make corrections that will calm internal alarms and subsequent fear-based words or actions.

    The actual usable technique is nested in #9. I find this tremendously helpful to use any time one of my ‘red flags’ is tripped. By red flag I mean a feeling of dread, fear, lack, resentment, need to be right, or general social tension. I treat any detectably negative emotion as a red flag, and at the observance of such a feeling I separate myself from the situation mentally and watch not only the room but my own emotions from a distance behind my head. This gets me out of the emotional push and pull and into a calm, objective state where I can trust my judgment.

  24. I think most people are capable of training there responds. Life is controlled by pain and pleasure. So sometimes we need to take some pain to get to the pleasure.

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