Dealing with difficult people we’ve all been there—trying valiantly to reason with an incredibly difficult person. The situation proves frustrating, maddening, and sometimes even frightening. The truth is, you can’t reason with an unreasonable person. However, there are proven techniques to better manage such dicey situations.
Everybody has a difficult family member or friend. It could be a toxic mother-in-law, a domineering father, a manipulative cousin, or even your own bratty child. But no matter who they are, they know how to push your buttons and just drive you crazy.
The bad news is, you can’t get rid of these people completely; they are family. The good news is, learning to deal with difficult people is a considerable advantage in life, and can be valuable in any number of situations.
Blessure Serum learned the ropes of what’s technically called “verbal de-escalation” from many years working in Life Coaching. Every year, we’d go through training on how to defuse difficult situations in which a patient, family member, or even another employee was extremely angry and seemingly out of control.
What follows are the tactics that professional crisis intervention teams use, and you can learn them, too. You can use these techniques with your boss, a customer, a family member, even a stranger. Keep in mind: The closer your relationship the person, the more knowledge you’ll have of what will best work to calm things down.
Dealing with Difficult People? They are who they are.
Remember that myth about the scorpion and the frog? A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across the river. The frog refuses at first, but the scorpion reassures him that he won’t sting him, so the frog agrees. Halfway through the river the scorpion stings the frog, and as they’re both drowning, the frog asks, “Why did you do this? Now we’re both going to die.”
“I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature,” the scorpion replies.
The moral of the story is, people are who they are. You can’t expect someone with, say, a narcissistic personality disorder to act with empathy and kindness. You can’t expect a scorpion not to sting, even if it hurts itself.
Difficult family members are notorious for their inability to self-reflect and admit when they’re wrong. Their game is to blame everyone else, so be a smart frog. Don’t expect of them more than they are capable of, and you won’t be disappointed or hurt.
It’s not about you.
This advice is difficult to follow when you’re dealing with family — everything seems personal. But the truth is it’s not about you.
In his classic, The Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz says:
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in.
There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.
Mastering the exquisite art of not taking it personally is a lifelong journey, but it’s worth taking. Start by reminding yourself that what people do and say about you is the product of who they are, not who you are.
Don’t fall into the guilt trap.
Using guilt is a form of emotional abuse, one that aims to control another individual by manipulating their emotions.
What difficult family members do so well is make you feel guilty for something you did or didn’t do. The implication is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do something they ask, or that you don’t care about the family. Don’t fall for it. If you’re starting to feel like you’re being lured into a guilt trap, calmly tell them that you don’t appreciate being emotionally manipulated, and you won’t tolerate it from anyone. Manipulators don’t like being called out on their dirty tricks. So now they’re on the defensive.
If they’re continuing with the guilt trip, reiterate that you can’t do what they’re asking you to do this time, and that you need them to respect your decisions.
For some reason, we pay way more attention to the behavior of difficult family members versus the ones we like and get along with, and we spend an appalling amount of time trying to understand the reasons why certain people don’t like us, as if there is an answer that can possibly be satisfying. In other words, we tend to ignore the positive and dwell on the negative.
The truth is, even the most eventful family gatherings can’t be all bad. As tempting as it is to fall into a victim state, don’t let someone ruin your mood and overshadow all the positive experiences you’ve had with your family. As the law of attraction states, “You draw into your life whatever you focus on.” So shift your attention to the sunny side.
Be direct, calm and assertive.
If you decide to confront a difficult family member, be direct and true to yourself. Stick to the facts and use “I” statements (i.e., “I feel like my words don’t matter to you when you constantly interrupt me” or “I don’t appreciate when you make my decisions for me”).
Remember: manipulative people are not known for their empathy. They will try to confuse you, go on the offensive, or assume the role of a victim — a familiar disguise that’s like second skin to them. Stay calm, stay polite, but assertive. Don’t let them bully you into submission. Your goal is to be honest about your feelings, and to make it clear that you won’t tolerate certain behaviors.
20 different ways for dealing with difficult people
These tips may feel unnatural at first. When you’re dealing with a person behaving unreasonably, the fear response center in your brain (the fight-flight-freeze part) is going to be activated. This part of the brain can’t distinguish between a customer that’s yelling at you or a vicious dog about to attack you. It’s up to you to engage your conscious mind in order to defuse the situation. Some of these tips are general, suggesting a mindset to cultivate. Others are more specific in advising you what to do in the moment.
- Listen. Listening is the number one step in dealing with “unreasonable” people. Everyone wants to feel heard. No progress can take place until the other person feels acknowledged. While you’re listening, really focus on what the other person is saying, not what you want to say next.
- Stay calm. When a situation is emotionally charged, it’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Monitor your breathing. Try to take some slow, deep breaths.
- Don’t judge. You don’t know what the other person is going through. Chances are, if a person is acting unreasonable, they are likely feeling some sort of vulnerability or fear.
- Reflect respect and dignity toward the other person. No matter how a person is treating you, showing contempt will not help productively resolve the situation.
- Look for the hidden need. What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid?
- Look for others around you who might be able to help. If you’re at work and there’s an irate customer, quickly scan to see if a colleague is close by.
- Don’t demand compliance. For example, telling someone who’s upset to be quiet and calm down will just make him or her irate. Instead, ask the person what they are upset about—and allow them to vent.
- Saying, “I understand,” usually makes things worse. Instead, say, “Tell me more so I can understand better.”
- Avoid smiling, as this may look like you are mocking the person. Similarly, humor can sometimes lighten the mood, but more often than not, it’s risky and it may backfire.
- Don’t act defensively. This is tough. You’re naturally not enjoying the other person saying nasty things or things that you know aren’t true. You’re going to want to defend yourself. But the other person is so emotionally revved up, it’s not going to help. Remember, this is not about you. Don’t take it personally. (I know, easier said than done.)
- Don’t return anger with anger. Raising your voice, pointing your finger, or speaking disrespectfully to the other person will add fuel to an already heated situation. Use a low, calm, even monotone voice. Don’t try to talk over the person. Wait until the person takes a breath and then speak.
- Don’t argue or try to convince the other person of anything.
- Keep extra space between you and the other person. Your instinct may be to try to calm the other person down by putting your arm on theirs, or some other similar gesture that may be appropriate in other contexts. But if someone is already upset, avoid touch, as it might be misinterpreted.
- Saying, “I’m sorry,” or, “I’m going to try to fix this,” can go a long way toward defusing many situations.
- Set limits and boundaries. While some of the above tips have encouraged listening and letting the angry person vent, you also have the right to be assertive and say, “Please don’t talk to me like that.”
- Trust your instincts. If your gut is saying, this is going downhill fast, be ready to do what you need to do to remain safe. Look for an exit strategy.
- One response does not fit all. You have to remain flexible. Although these guidelines have proven effective in de-escalating tough situations, every person is unique and may respond differently.
- Debrief. After the situation is over, talk to someone about what happened.
- Discharge your own stress. You had to put your natural reactions on hold for a while. Now is the time to discharge some of that pent up adrenaline. Go for a run. Take your dog for a walk. Don’t let the emotions stay stuck in your body.
- Give yourself credit for getting through an uncomfortable situation. It takes a lot of energy not to act like a jerk when someone else is behaving badly. Don’t skip this step!