Dealing With Difficult People? A Guide To Staying Sane

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Our “life journeys” are never as idyllic as the phrase implies. It’s an inevitability that, at multiple stops along the road, we’ll meet people we could take or leave. And, unfortunately, we’re not always in a position to leave ‘em. It takes a lot of poise, self-restraint, and social aptitude to properly handle the unreasonable and difficult people in our workplace, social circles, and even homes.
When it comes time to just grin and bear some unpleasant interactions — and do so convincingly and with gusto — some of us could really use a pointer or two. Rather than let the necessity of dealing with these characters derail your day, empower yourself with these great strategies from Communication Success expert Preston Ni. Of course, keep in mind these are general pointers, to be customized as you see fit, depending on the situation at hand. Get ready to put those problem personalities in their place, or at least learn to compartmentalize.
1. Keep Your Cool
The oldest rule in the book. When you’re on the verge of an angry tirade, before you say anything you regret, take a deep breath and slowly count to ten. If you haven’t calmed down or figured out a civil way of communicating the issue, take a time out and revisit the problem once you’ve regained your composure.
2. Fly Like An Eagle
In the words of the Steve Miller Band or whomever said, “You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys,” keep your interaction with said difficult person to a minimum. When you absolutely have to deal with a hard-to-handle relative, colleague, PTA parent, etc., be diplomatic, then duck out as soon as possible. Sometimes, the key to a healthy relationship is healthy distance. And some people just aren’t worth the sunken time and effort.
3. Go From Reactive To Proactive
Don’t jump to conclusions when it comes to judging other people’s words or deeds. Avoid personalizing others' behaviors and immediately taking offense. For the most part, people act a certain way because of their own motivations, not simply to disoblige others. To avoid misinterpreting a situation and giving it greater weight than it deserves, try to widen your perspective and keep an open mind. Of course, you shouldn’t excuse unacceptable behavior simply because you can empathize with another person’s situation. However, viewing situations objectively does allow us to find better ways of addressing them.
4. Remember, Person ≠ Issue
“In every communication situation, there are two elements present: the relationship you have with this person, and the issue you are discussing," says Ni. "An effective communicator knows how to separate the person from the issue, and be soft on the person and firm on the issue." Being able to make this distinction and act accordingly will win you more rapport, cooperation, and respect from the person you're dealing with and those in the periphery.
5. Shift the Spotlight
According to Ni, “A common pattern with difficult people — especially the aggressive type — is that they like to place attention on you to make you feel uncomfortable or inadequate. Typically, they’re quick to point out there’s something not right with you or the way you do things. The focus is consistently on what’s wrong, instead of how to solve the problem.” This is a controlling tactic more than a problem-solving one. They’re trying to put you on the defensive, and if you fall into that trap, you put yourself in a more vulnerable position, open to scrutiny, allowing your aggressor to continue bullying you freely. Change this dynamic by putting the spotlight back on the difficult questions by asking constructive, probing questions that force your oppressor to self-reflect.
6. Laugh It Off (Appropriately)
Ni recalls: “Years ago, I knew a co-worker who was quite stuck up. One day a colleague of mine said ‘Hello, how are you?’ to him. When the egotistical co-worker ignored her greeting completely, my colleague didn’t feel offended. Instead, she smiled good-naturedly and quipped: ‘That good, huh?’ This broke the ice and the two of them started a friendly conversation. Brilliant.” Humor is a great communicator. It allows you to demonstrate your detachment and disarm unreasonable behavior.
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