Difficult people can be anything from a person going through a hard time, who is simply more reactive than usual, to someone with a personality disorder who will make your life miserable on an ongoing basis. So, how can you tell the difference? Well, it depends on the length of time you have known them, their usual behavior patterns and most importantly, how they respond when you attempt to address an issue with them.
When you attempt to discuss a problem with someone who is generally reasonable but is behaving poorly under stress, at some point they will usually be able to take responsibility for their part and have a productive conversation. They will demonstrate a willingness to understand your side of things and work to negotiate each other’s needs. On the other hand, someone with a high conflict personality will not allow anyone to question them and will usually attack and blame in order to deflect responsibility. They are not interested in what you need or want. They are focused on themselves at the expense of others. These types of personalities do not usually learn from adverse interpersonal experiences because they always believe it is the other person who is the problem. They often behave abusively and then unbelievably… act as if they are the victim. They are often the person who will initiate a lawsuit and have others pending. They feel entitled to special treatment without having earned it and lack empathy. They will not think twice about taking someone else down in order to get what they want.
At this point, you may be thinking of your significant other, your friend, coworker, boss or other person in a position of authority. In any case, it’s important that you have an emotional coping strategy in place so you feel confident you can deal with the most unreasonable of adversaries. Here are some tips for how to respond when you are confronted with an angry or “difficult person.”
- 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. Our minds go into fight or flight mode because we are perceiving an “attack.”
- Monitor your breathing. Try to take some slow, deep breaths. If you breathe out longer than you breathe in…you can’t panic and are less likely to overreact.
- If you are feeling angry or reactive then hit the “pause” button. You rarely have to handle a situation in the heat of the moment. Tell them that you need to set a time to sit down and discuss things later, so you can give them your full attention.
- 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, insecurity 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? Or more importantly, what is this person trying to avoid?
- You need to to know your own threshold for what you can take from difficult people. If you feel that you are unable to stay calm and you are being negatively affected by the stress of dealing with them, then it may be time to reevaluate your strategy or leave.
If you have tried to resolve things by staying calm and have demonstrated to them that you are interested in understanding their needs but things just don’t get better, it may be time to leave. After all, some people are manipulative and lacking in empathy and are out to get you, your money or your job. Staying calm and keeping your position of strength in these situations is essential but when you feel it is an abusive or exploitive situation it’s best to cut your losses and get away. It’s not worth the emotional and physical toll it can take to deal with an ongoing toxic situation.