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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. Lee

    Very helpful and informative.. I met some people with this kind of attitude before and I done some of this tips and I think it worked. Thanks great article!

  2. Hello….All I could say after reading this blog is that I am truly thankful. As what they say ” I can forgive but can’t forget” let us examine our selves God forgive our sins how much more us to others.

  3. Superb article!!

    Just read these beautiful lines somewhere, thought of sharing the same

    “By letting go things it doesn’t mean you are forgiven. It means I choose to stay unaffected by whatever you do to me. ”


  4. Johnaden

    Great article! I’ve encountered difficult people in my previous jobs. My strategies? I listened to what they were saying and responded as calm as possible. Very effective, indeed. The conversation ended smoothly…

  5. Troubled HighSchool Student

    My father gets mad over everything I do, including what I don’t do..
    For example, he expects me to do good in school but repeatedly tells me i’m dumb, crazy, useless, etc.. He is simply hard to not get mad at…
    I keep my anger held back (or at least try to), but he is just too much.
    I can’t avoid meeting him since he lives in this house but what can I do? My father has huge anger issues as he becomes enraged at a tiny thing as looking at other websites while doing my homework. He is immature and is like a little kid having a tantrum.. He is like a highschool bully (which i have yet to meet ironically irl) who is my father and is sitting on his butt watching tv all day or out gambling unemployed telling ME i’m useless. I remind you I’m a high school student.
    My parents are racist, think of the world as easy in their views (they haven’t had any “proper” schooling and only had about a middleschools worth of school in vietnam)

    When I try doing my homework they tell me to do it faster. When i’m trying to think of how to do my homework, they tell me to think faster and stop being dumb.

    My mom is not much different except she has less of the anger my father has and a bit more maturity. I really try to not let my anger show but sometimes they are just pushing it to the edge. I have thought of suicide sometimes until i reminded myself thats not the way to go. “Lots of rage”^ Question below

    How would I survive this place if I can’t avoid the negativity in my life if my parents seem to be the embodiment of negativity?

  6. Troubled HighSchool Student

    They don’t even know me either.
    They think how I am at home is how I’m at everywhere
    They basically think I’m retarded and they know best.

  7. Hello There. I discovered your blog the use of msn. That is a really neatly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read extra of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.

  8. izzy

    this article has been incredibly helpful to me. in dealing with difficult people i have learned many things about myself, and i found that through my own personal experience i had already accomplished many of these things. seriously, great article. and for the record i really don’t care if i’m right. now i’m going to go pour honey on someone and pay them unnecessary compliments, even despite the waves of negativity that have been washing over me from that person recently. it is so hard to be kind and forgiving in the face of hostility.

  9. S

    This is all sensible advice because you can’t control anyones actions but your own. But what about stopping the other persons behavior? We fight because it lets the other person know we will not tolerate their behavior. If we don’t stand up for ourselves and merely being passive doesn’t that invite more torment? I walk a fine line here when it means keeping my cool and letting the other person have it.

    It’s difficult keeping your cool when being confronted and pushed. I’m dealing with a person now who comes off all passive aggressive, confronts, than doesn’t want to deal with the aftermath of their negativity and playing the victim. I’ve dealt with bullies before and although I’m an adult it feels like I’m in high school. I’ve been trying to get zen and find an answer but I don’t know what else to do. Getting pissed off wont help. Trying to inner peace isn’t coming easy. I just feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place.

  10. I am a new visitor of this site. I searched for it because i was face a negative person from last 3 weeks. Its very strange to say that he is my teacher. I don’t know why he was doing so. He always enter the class call my roll number and was giving me various punishments without giving me any reason. All my friend and the whole class observed that he has got some problem with me. I thought may be i am not good enough in my studies. the exams were on head. I thought to prove my self by scoring high marks in his subject. I didn’t wasted a single min during the preparation gape. I gave the paper and was very happy on attempting every question in detail.
    One day he entered the class started distributing the paper he called my roll number and said u r fail in this paper. i was shocked and i questioned myself what the hell is going on with me. Papers of the whole class was distributed he called me and gave me my paper. I was shocked that he hasn’t checked my paper. I looked toward him with lots of question in my eyes. He showed me a diagram. That was a Cartoon of sole trader. He told me u are fail in this paper because of this drawing which you have made. I came back to my sit. The paper was of 5 question and the cartoonic diagram was only in the answer of one question. The counted my hole paper 0/100 it was very strange to me and to the whole class. My friend asked for my paper. I gave it to them all were shocked. One of my friend called my name i turned back he returned me my paper.
    suddenly the teacher come to me in anger. He reached me and hit me very hardly on my head. I lost control i controlled myself very hardly. I couldn’t so any thing because there was much chance to lose my career.

    i came home searched this site got a lot of points. Lets see whats gonna happen tomorrow.

  11. Ben

    I’ve been picked on and made fun of all my life. I have to deal with negative and mean people wherever I go. If you really want to get treated like crap, be a bagger in a grocery store. I know because I’ve been there. I know I have to improve my people skills and the ability to cope. I have neither. This is a great website to get started on improving.

  12. izzy

    Shahid, go to the dean of your school. That behavior is unacceptable, the dean needs to know what’s going on. Bring the paper to review, and inform them of what’s going on.

  13. One tip for dealing with difficult people when having a discussion, (if they are raising their voice), is to remain calm when responding and not to go on the defensive. Calming explaining your viewpoint in a measured way often unconsciously forces the difficult person to recognize that they are yelling and it brings the negative energy down.

  14. Darren

    I have read this article at least 3 times and I find that it clearly describes the abuse that I experience everyday. Resentment, neglect and disrespect is not new to me. My girlfriend, my boss and others constantly tries to irritate me and I was not sure why until I saw this article. It has given me great insight and inspiration, I intend to reflect on this article when ever I find myself in a situation. Hopefully by exercising what I have learnt here I will be able to resolve most of these confrontations. Thank you for sharing your thought and assessment.

  15. Hannah

    In an ironic twist of fate, a person who sent me a horrible insulting letter recently, based on misinformation he hadn’t properly checked out and isn’t willing to discuss with me, is someone who also recently taught a course on how to deal with difficult people!
    (Which is why ended up googling and finding this site to know what to do with him. So I thank him for that, it’s a great website!)
    Lessons to learn from this?
    1.) It’s very hard at times to be self-reflective enough to realise faults in yourself, even though in theory you know exactly what you should and shouldn’t do.
    2.) Forgiving can be really hard but it’s worth it
    3.) If this happens to someone who should know better, how much easier can it happen to someone who doesn’t. Like me. So it’s very important to learn to be objective with yourself.

    I have cut all contact for now and am working on being compassionate while understanding that anger is a normal and even good emotion but needs to be used constructively and that in the future I can find better ways to deal with people like this.

  16. Nahida K.

    What happens if there are people loitering in front of your building and they won’t leave? They block the doorway before I enter and exit (in front of the lobby) my apartment. I need to say excuse me and then they move. Sometimes they are smoking cigarettes, and I’m pregnant. How do I confront them without escalating the situation? Being passive and forgiving is good advice, yet I want to do something about this. Could you write back?

  17. badwolf8745

    My whole life I never got along with my mother and I just chalked it up to being a middle child. But one day I got to talking with her and she came right out and told me that my feelings don’t matter to her. I couldn’t believe she said that. No wonder my older sister and I have always had problems with her. She is not into
    Introspection. And there are things she does that have always driven me crazy, now I know why. When my sister or I bring up things that she has said or done from when we were younger, it makes her angry because she says we are making things up. But I have been at the end of one of her verbal outbursts and been heartbroken. Later when I brought it up, she looked at me and said “I would never say that”. It is difficult living with this kind of person. I always wondered why my dad treated her the way he did. Now I know.

  18. Paul

    @ Nahida K. – Well your landlord should be taking care of that, especially if they don’t even live in your apartment complex. I live in Washington State and there is no public smoking allowed here within 25 feet of a building entrance. Not sure what the laws for your area. If they move maybe they just didn’t see you. But if you suspect drug activity as the reason they’re loitering around then it’s a law enforcement issue. You said your’re pregnant so you’re going to have a heightened sense of awareness of your environment; things not familiar to you may be perceived as a danger. It sounds like a creepy situation but by the way you described it they seem harmless so far.

  19. sandra

    thankyou for the great advice. well done.

  20. SMS

    As I have went through a negative day myself with a person who I knew has issues at times but try to let it go, she jumped me over something our kids said, and will I sorta said. But it was nothing it was so small and should have not been brought up, but now it has put me in such a downer. I would love to just let it go, and again its nothing big but for her to put me in a spot like this makes me feel so bad. She tends to be such a person to react to things and then you can’t help to not react to it. I want to be a person who lets this stuff go, and came to this post thinking maybe it would help and it has. So thank for that. I hope it all blows over.

  21. Marianne

    Great thoughts here. thanks. I do think animals are intelligent ,just not able to change their minds/reactions. Also the best tip you suggested I think is to write it or express it somehow and then throw it out or let it go. We cant just stuff our feelings, every feeling is to be honored for what it is. Then we can move on. Peace.

  22. Jocasta Phillipa HOLMAN

    I think most people have met difficult people in their lives at sometime, i now distance myself from people like that who stress me out, i don’t wish to sound negitive i try to be optimistic most of the time if i can. My dilemma is my sister-in-law who whenever we meet brings into the conversation about babies and kids. I get rather fed up with this and i have dropped a few hints to her i don’t like it but she still does it. Just because she thinks it’s the bee’s knee’s it doesn’t mean we all do. So now i have moved away from seeing her to much and only see her when it things like parties or gatherings. It is a shame that the relationship has got to this stage but i found myself getting stressed out in her company to much i think she should but more sensitive to other people’s feelings and anyway she doesn’t know why people have no children perhaps they couldn’t have any or they don’t want any.

  23. Lee Ann Darnell

    How do you eliminate the negative people when they are you ailing elderly parents that have to live with you?

  24. g

    This is quite a compelling article on how to be the master of your life. Everything in the article is about being passive except for the part about eliminating contact with “negative” people. What a complicated dilema to propose that one should, in their own inherent goodness, actively exalt and support those who “attempt” to tear oneself down while simultaneously ignoring and eliminating contact with that very same “negative” person. This article does touch on a few truthful concepts but I am anguished for those that believe this article and attempt to follow this methodology for they will be entering into a state of dissassociation which is very dangerous for themselves. Instead, identify and cultivate personal boundaries and seek out authentic freindships.

  25. Abigail

    I wasn’t very far away from the truth! I always thought that ignoring difficult people was better than trying to defend myself. Thank you Tina for your blog. You are so smart!!

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