I have good news and bad news about difficult people:
The bad news is that difficult people happen, they happen all the time and sometimes they happen to be our own family members.
The good news is that you do not have to deal with difficult people! Not too earth shattering as a concept but a real truth - You simply do not have to.
Over the years I have gathered quite a wealth of information about difficult people and learned that they will fall under two very distinct categories:
- Difficult people who cannot help themselves but be difficult and,
- Difficult people who do not need to be difficult but chose to be.
Think about those whose emotional health presents a host of challenges they can barely face on their own. Unless you are willing to embrace the challenge of battling their deeply rooted dysfunctions and horrible habits, you are in for a long, long journey into frustration. Unfortunately, when these folks happen to be our family members, we are in for even bigger troubles since we really and truly want to help them understand how difficult they are as well as how their difficult and unmanageable behavior impact us emotionally and physically. If you ever had to deal with a rigid, unreasonable and overly dramatic family member, you know exactly what I mean...After a while, you simply give up on trying to reason with them or even attempt to show them your side of the story. In this category, you will find those with Bipolar, Borderline, Narcissistic or Anti-Social Personality disorders. All four will manipulate and disregard your feelings. All four will consume you to the point of utter exhaustion and at times, the total break up of your family and marriage. It is said that when dealing with a truly dysfunctional family member, it is us who have to change and learn to manage their emotional and behavioral dysfunctions rather than enduring the constant battle of trying to change them.
Here is a tidbit about difficult people who cannot help themselves: their dysfunction is their "normal" and your fighting them is a form of judgement and opposition they have difficulties understanding since, for the most part, they cannot appreciate how wrong and over the top they can be. If anything, and to them, YOU are wrong, hence their need to press on.
In less dramatic displays, other energy sappers come in many forms such as Grandma who is never happy nor appreciative, no matter what you do to please her; your nagging mom who always critiques and makes you feel like a 14 year old every time she shows up at your door or your co-worker who keeps a black book, recording every minute of his daily interactions, just-in-case he has to sue you and take the company down with him. Some of these folks can become quite unbearable and make you dread going to work or showing up at your own parents' Thanksgiving dinner.
Then, there are those difficult people who do not need to be difficult: the arrogant and self absorbed coworkers, the inpatient and condescending lady at the supermarket line or those who have raised levels of ignorance to a new high by never bulging because change, well, it is just not for them. These too, just like the first category, have the potential to engage and provoke you into endless fights.
There is one thing you must remember when learning to manage these characters:
Difficult people are more interested in being right than being loved.
We, on the other end, are looking to be loved more than we care to be right. (You can swap being right with being in control). Thus, here lies our conflict: because we want to be liked and they want to be right, we often have to yield to their bombastic claims that it is their way or the highway. We often leave these battles and other command performances feeling defeated and unable to stand up for ourselves. These folks are exhausting and quite frankly, while we do not necessarily have a choice when it comes to family members, life would be much easier if we did not have to be exposed to any of this in the first place.
I have learned that in this second category of difficult folks, there are three separate and very distinct subtypes: their toxic behavior either stems from fear of inadequacy, a shattered self-esteem and/or a need for control. Fear they cannot meet expected standards, over compensation for perceived deficiencies or a need to control everything and everyone are often at the root of their resistance to be a part of a harmonious environment. It's all about their level of anxiety when confronted with specific situations, fighting back will only raise their anxiety.
So, what can we do? And wouldn't it be nice if we could live in a world where everyone is allowed to be just the way they are and no one would get offended, ever?
Here are simple, easy tips to follow and make your life easier whenever you are confronted with a difficult person:
1. Stay calm - Don't fight:
Easier said than done, yet, whether you are dealing with category one (cannot be helped) or category two (chose to be difficult), fighting back is never the right approach. There is no need to talk back and take on a defensive stance, most difficult people seek this sort of provocation and at times will set you up for a fight. It's a power-control thing.
Again, difficult people seek to engage and provoke. They want their views to take over, their needs to supersedes every one else's needs, they do not seek consensus and they believe that life is not fair so they need to have it their way. Any attempt at resisting or opposing their view point will be considered a green light for increased fighting and their perception that you are running interferences. Most will navigate you via a game of shame and guilt too. So, stay calm, do not raise your voice and remember this: no one can undermine you but YOU.
I have learned this from one of my previous supervisors and it took me a very long (and painful) journey to grasp the concept, but eventually, I did. No one can undermine me, but me. Today, my integrity and self respect are never damaged when dealing with difficult people. Not yielding to their nagging demands does not necessarily make me equally difficult, I have learned to gently stand my ground and remain intact in the process. A simple "I'll look into that, thank you" will stop the conversation in its track. Planned ignoring works just the same.
Some people will say whatever they want to say, they will create webs of lies in a deliberate attempt at ruining your reputation and ultimately make them feel better about themselves. Sometimes, it is simply about their raising smoke screens to expose you before they, themselves, are exposed. Yes, it hurts, but as long as you know who you are and remain poised and unaffected, the ball will always be in your camp.
Learn about what you can and cannot control and, think of the Serenity Prayer. While it is often used in 12 Steps meetings, the point drives home in many situations described above:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Why are you accepting to fight with someone you cannot and will not change? If the person in front of you is overbearing, manipulative and outrageously hurtful, just walk away with your dignity intact. Let them make a spectacle of themselves and rest in the comforting thought that you are the bigger person and secure in your sense of self.
Most difficult people will equate your resisting them as a form of attack - it is your job to diffuse the situation before venom starts spewing your way. In other words, you need to stay in touch with your feelings and control your reaction to difficult people. Quite frankly, some are simply making arrogant and outrageous statements in the hope to upset and destabilize you emotionally. As long as you understand that process and know that this is not about you, but them, you will not feel nor be undermined.
2. Use humor to diffuse escalating conflicts:
Every office has a character who steals ideas, tends to volunteer for everything and interrupts quite a lot. Whatever they do, they always do it better. Sometimes, these folks can be quite smart and manipulative as attention seekers. To add salt to the injury, I have also noticed that these folks also tend to be younger! If they have the energy to volunteer for everything, let them have it, I personally have too much work to put additional tasks on my plate, they can go ahead and run yet another committee!
Know your job description. Are you doing your job? Do you go above and beyond without being a show-off? If yes, then relax, these folks tend to quickly burn bridges and eventually their ambition will lead them somwhere else. Do your job, do it well and you'll be ok.
That said, if you are a so-so worker, learn to sharpen your saw and develop the necessary skills that will lead you to shine just as much. Resentment and jealousy will lead you nowhere as they get the promotion you had coveted. No matter what, always take things with humor...It's not personal, it's just the way they are and chances are they were that way at their previous job and will remain that way on their next job too, so you might as well have some fun! Turn yourself into some kind of lab researcher and marvel at their dysfunction. It makes for great entertainment at the office, or the family reunion! Whenever someone makes an attack, I simply reply with a note of half humility - half humor with a big smile: "Well, you know, I am still learning" and I move on. What answer could they possibly give you after that?
I once led a meeting, prepared with an agenda and a simple grid printed on the top. It was entittled: Interruption Connect-Four. Once every member sat down, I declared that I would keep track of those who would interrupt someone else during the meeting and whoever would reach "four", would have to bring doughnuts and coffee to the next three meetings. Some may think it was rude and unprofessional on my part, and perhaps poor leadership. It actually was received quite well since everyone in the group knew exactly who I was referring to, without directly naming our "identified patient"...We laughed it out, went on with our meeting, and guess what? No interruptions - No one wanted to be singled out, even our attention seeker! It was quite a productive meeting too! I brought the doughnuts to the next meeting.
3. Don't turn them down - influence:
Control freaks and attention seekers have difficulties with being turned or shut down. Your dismissive attitude towards them is never interpreted as a lesson they need to learn, if anything, it will give them more fuel to their fire. Instead of tit-for- tat attacks and continued stabbing, name calling or shaming, try to influence them.
There is an inteviewing technique used by salesmen and forensic evaluators called the Rule of Three Agreements, it is also known as the Rule of Consistency. The process is quite simple: We human, have a need to remain consistent in attitude and behavior. Whatever preceded us, we repeat, which would also explain cycles of domestic violence, addiction and control. Think about it this way: the gambler goes to the slot machine and puts in quarter after quarter, eventually he wins, small or big, he wins. That is a guarantee he will continue wasting quarters. After losing his wins plus some, he wins again! Even losses lead to happy endings, more quarters are wasted and on it goes. We make conclusions based on history. Those who jump to conclusion simply draw from the past. If your difficult person has won a few battles with you in the past, their expectation is that this "winning" pattern will go on.
With regards to the Three Agreements, our brain needs consistency, and when faced with difficult situations it requires an answer that is congruent with previous similar situations. Check this out:
When responding to the difficult person in front of you, derail them by responding in the form of a question he or she would have to answer with a categorical YES. Do this three times. After three YES, something amazing happens to their brain: compliance and consistency. Because the brain needs to remain consistent and congruent with what was just processed, they will be more likely to continue to be ameanable to your point of view and continue to say YES. Here is an example using this technique with the nasty lady at the supermarket line:
"It looks to me that you are in a hurry, am I correct?"
"It is always a problem when things get delayed, don't you agree?"
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could always just breeze through these lines?"
Pause...Now ask the person to be patient, or calm down or whatever it is you need and watch what happens!
If you want to read more about Influence and Persuasion, here is a good read: