Coping with Difficult People

Posted by Joe Alberts, Clinical Psychologist

If you are like the rest of us, you will have to cope with difficult people from time to time. Some people are mildly annoying, but then there are also those who go to astonishing lengths to be difficult. Examples of this could be the boss who keeps moving the goal posts, the client who acts and speaks aggressively or the ex that seems to spend all day planning how to make life miserable for you! Their behaviour causes you to overreact, run away, freeze, swear, cry, a combination of the aforementioned – and others. How do we cope with the difficult people in our lives?

A wise sage advised long ago that the secret to dealing with a person with a malevolent disposition is not to change the person but to change yourself. A modern sage, Stephen Covey, counsels us to “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. What needs to change in you to help you cope better with the difficult people in your life?

Let’s face it, we are all animals and as such we tend to react when we feel threatened. Walter Cannon, an American physiologist, first described the fight-or-flight response in the 1920’s. This physiological reaction, also called the acute stress response, is a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside your body that help mobilise you to deal with a threat. A sudden release of hormones increases your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. You can run faster, jump higher, scream louder and hit harder. Your rational thinking brain switches off and your reptile brain kicks in and this turns you into a fighting machine that has no regard for the consequences of your behaviour. This is a good thing and has saved countless lives but unfortunately also often escalates the conflict between two people who react to one another’s stress reactions. Some of us, however, freeze when we feel threatened enough and are unable to respond appropriately.  We are all unique and so is your specific response to feeling threatened. Know what it is and when the first sign appears take a long and deep breath. This will slow you down and in most instances greatly reduce the intensity of your fight-or-flight response, making it a lot easier to cope with your difficult person.

It is also helpful to identify your specific anger button(s). Do you react with anger when you are criticized, blamed or threatened? Some of us cannot stand whinging, nagging or people who tend to find excuses and not accept responsibility. The list of anger buttons is unending and you need to know what triggers your anger response. Knowing this will arm you when your difficult person pushes your anger button, in that you will immediately become aware of your acute stress reaction and you can breathe to calm yourself down and defuse the situation rather than escalate the conflict.

This does not mean that you always have to let your difficult person get away with it. Making your needs known in an assertive (not aggressive) way will help you maintain yourself when dealing with difficult people. One way to effectively communicate your needs in to use an ‘I message’. The term was first coined by Thomas Gordon in the 1960s while doing play therapy with children.

An I message has three components:

1. A specific and non-blaming description of the behaviour of the other person,
2. The effects of that behaviour on you (and significant others),
3. Your feelings about the behaviour. If appropriate you could also communicate a preference for different behaviour.

An example would be:

1. When you say I am always acting childish,
2. I feel frustrated and even angry and
3. I would prefer that you give me more specific feedback and allow me to explain why I chose to act the way I did.

In some cases, simply becoming aware of the effects of one’s behaviour and the feelings it provokes is enough to make people change negative behaviours. There is however some of you who find yourself in a toxic relationship(s). Toxic relationships are verbally or physically abusive and the difficult person does not respond to your repeated I-messages. If this is you it is time to take action. Talk to someone you trust and start to care for yourself. You may also need professional help. Psychologists are experts in the area of human behaviour and will help you to cope with your difficult person or find a place of emotional and physical safety.\

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