Dealing with Difficult People

We all have at least one difficult person in our lives. Whether it is a co-worker, neighbor, relative or our own spouse, somewhere out there is that special someone who knows how to push our buttons, sabotage our plans and drive us so crazy we sometimes feel like punching the wall. And we have tried everything to work things out but the situation feels hopeless….So now what?

This article is about all the difficult people in our lives and all the drama, conflict and hard lessons they bring to us. But this article is not about how we can stand up to them more, or some secret formula to transform or change them in anyway because…and I hate to be the one to tell you this: we can’t! And they are probably never going to change or suddenly become nicer or a better listener in any way…

I know this is a harsh lesson but the very notion that we can change somebody is false- and believe me as a professional coach I have learned this lesson more deeply than most people ever will. It is also egotistical because it presupposes that we know what is best for them- and in truth the only one that truly knows that is them, and right now that means being difficult.

People generally only change under three conditions:

  • They are ready
  • They are willing
  • They have something to gain

This may sound negative or pessimistic, but it is actually a highly effective strategy for working with others and for managing difficult people. When we begin to understand what is truly motivating them and we are relating to them through an attitude that respects their needs, beliefs and ideas, we can actually begin to build a bridge with even the most difficult people.

Another reason we can not change a difficult person is because we are LIKE them. I am not saying we all are difficult people per say, but there are certain assumptions people operate under that make their lives more difficult and more likely to clash with other difficult people rather than relating to them in an effective or harmonious way.

The number one assumption we have that is holding us back is the judgment that the other person is difficult and that they need to change the way they are. If I may so gently point out: this belief is arrogant. The difficult person may be difficult, but they are often content with the way they are and simply going through life fighting strongly for what they believe in. This is how they learned to navigate life’s obstacles and it is their survival mechanism. Who are we to say that it is not the right way for them to be?

In actuality it is WE who need to change around them and fortunately this is where the greatest power and potential lies. Changing our behavior or beliefs is something we have direct control over right now. As I pointed out earlier, changing someone else is futile and the difficult person may be completely content with the way things are. If we want change to occur, then the level that can happen on most easily is within ourselves.

How does this work? There is a basic fact that we all forget as we go about our busy lives that people around us are more alike than different- and this is why we clash. We all need certain fundamentals: food, clothing, shelter, security, companionship, and so on through the hierarchy of needs. The majority of conflicts in the world occur on the levels of communication and external behavior used to secure these fundamentals. If we could simply remember that underneath we all want the same thing, and begin to apply some basic strategies, we might actually notice how harmonious our ideas and behaviors can be, even when dealing with difficult people:

Figure out what they want and what is driving them: Approach, then ask and listen. Listen some more. Figure out a way you can both get what you want through some plan or reasonable compromise. If they are being difficult you will likely have to do most of the creative thinking, but this is much easier than trying to convince them you are right or trying to change their minds.

Figure out exactly how they want to be treated: Many times difficult people are operating under a net trauma of oppression, being marginalized, criticized or having their creativity stepped on by bosses, family members etc. They too want love, compassion, respect and sincerity much like the rest of us and the deficiency they have lived with for so long is what has caused them to be difficult and overly- aggressive about their ideas and needs. Remember this is only their survival mechanism.

Become their friend: Keep your friend’s close but your enemies closer. Once you get them on your side you may find a powerful ally or in the least a functional partner. Building a language of communication with the difficult person is key to avoiding future conflicts. If they are too difficult or require too much energy, leadership or maintenance, you may require some professional assistance from a coach or mentor on how to take a stand or redefine the relationship.

See difficult people as a gift or ally: Take the opportunity to reflect on the darker parts of yourself. Negative people reveal to us where we are inflexible. Often times they share a similar unhealthy trait (with the volume knob turned way up) that we find unlikeable about ourselves, and this is the very quality we are so blatantly judging in them!!! The difficult person can be a powerful mirror into our own psyche and if we learn to accept those difficult parts of ourselves it will help neutralize the irritation we experience with the difficult person.

Always stand up for yourself: Never let a difficult person walk all over you! I know I just said to be more compassionate, but all things require balance and you are doing just as much harm to the world by letting yourself be trampled as by starting a conflict with a difficult person. The most important thing here is following an effective strategy to reach the highest potential of any friendship, marriage or organization. If you are stuck or feel overwhelmed by the difficult people in your lives, this may be your opportunity to work with a professional conflict coach, so don’t hesitate to reach out.