10 Ways to Deal with Really Difficult People without Becoming One Yourself

Difficult young people

You probably have people in your life who make you feel just downright happy when you are around them.

They are easy to be around, they share your interests, they are kind and thoughtful, and you respect them. Let’s call them your “happy people”.

Most of the people you choose to be in your life, your friends for example, should be happy people, don’t you think? I mean, hey, why chose friends who aren’t friendly?

(Just as an aside here, I’d like to remind you to take really good care of your happy people. Be a happy person right back at them. These folks are to be nurtured and treasured.)

As much as we want happy people in our lives, it often happens that difficult people appear in our circle to gum up the works. In fact, some of those difficult people can be right in our own families.

Lots of times they work with us, or they are the parents of our kid’s friends, or we are put with them in some situation or circumstance that is unavoidable. And sometimes, darn it, we do choose them and hang on to them for some ungodly reason that makes no sense, at least on the surface.

There are various levels of difficulty with difficult people, but they all have the capacity to stir us up and bring out our worst traits. Let me rephrase that.

We allow our peace of mind and equanimity to be challenged when interacting with a difficult person.

Because that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? Difficult people can push our buttons, but only if our buttons are turned on.

Granted, it is no easy task not to get sucked up and twisted around by unpleasant, negative types. It happens to me all the time.

Sometimes the difficult behavior comes in the form of a comment or look so subtle that you don’t realize you’ve been sliced to the quick, until you feel the sting. I am always, always taken by surprise by this under-the-radar approach, and it makes me so mad that I can’t respond to passive meanness without looking small myself. I’d rather they be overtly rude and loathsome.

Let’s face it, it’s easy to get along with easy people. But it is so very hard to be the person you want to be when the weight of a negative personality is dragging you down.

This is a task, and I mean a real task, of proactive decision making on your part. You have to start with the decision that you will be the person you want to be in spite of the behavior you encounter and the feelings it stirs up.

I’m not suggesting that you just belly-up and take it. But I am suggesting that there are ways to prevent difficult people from pulling you into their sphere of unhappiness and boorish behavior.

These are hard things to do. They take self-reflection and a willingness to deal straightforwardly with very uncomfortable situations. If you are reading this post, you probably aren’t someone who just sweeps problems under the rug.

angry woman

If you want to manage your difficult people and reclaim some peace of mind, I present these ideas for your consideration:

1. Know Thyself

Define in writing the person you want to be. What are the elements of your character, integrity and values that you want to reflect to the world in your words and actions? Now, define how you’d like that person to respond when faced with the difficult people.

Have a mental character study available that you can step into like a suit when the occasion arises. You might have to “act” the part if your reactive feelings start to take over.

2. Let Go of Certain People

Remember the part about choosing your friends? Well, you can also choose to let them go. If someone is truly draining you or hurting you and is not attempting to correct their behavior, then by all means, let them go. This does not have to be a dramatic production.

Depending on the circumstance or person, you can let them fade out of your life or you can kindly tell them that you need a break for your own well-being. They probably won’t take it well, but are you surprised? That’s one of the reasons you are letting them go. This is an unpleasant task, but it won’t take long.

3. Have The Uncomfortable Talk

There are some people in your life who are difficult, but you are not ready to let them go. You want to give them a chance, but realize that people generally aren’t mind readers. You have to tell them you have a problem and how it can be fixed.

Remind yourself of who you want to be and how you’d like to be treated if you were the difficult person. Speak from the heart about your feelings without attack or blame. Give the person the opportunity to correct the behavior. It may take time, and you must decide how much time you are willing to give.

4. With a Boss, Prepare and Protect Yourself in Advance

One of the worst situations in the world is having a boss who is difficult. You are already in the inferior position with the boss/employee dynamic. Couple that with a boss who is degrading or lazy or unethical, and you have the makings for one of the most unpleasant relationships of your life. How you navigate this without either losing your job or losing your self-esteem is quite tricky.

If your boss is unethical, consider getting out as soon as possible, even if you have to deliver pizzas for a while. A job is never worth compromising your integrity. If your boss is mean or lazy, and you feel you have to stay in the job, then arm yourself with a calm and steely reserve.

Don’t respond to baiting or sarcasm — in fact, silence speaks volumes. Walk away if necessary. If comments or behaviors are untrue or degrading, calmly correct untruths or state that you cannot accept being spoken to rudely. It’s never a bad idea to document these behaviors for your own protection. Working for someone you don’t respect is a chore and drags you down. Eventually you should leave.

5. Keep Your Distance

If you have a difficult family member or relative, it is quite hard to remove them from your life completely. Letting this person go might mean letting go of other people in your family whom you love and want to see. But you can limit the time you spend with certain people.

Stay in a hotel rather than in a family home trapped with the difficult person. Spend time with other family members or engaged in a project when you are around them.

Proactively decide how many times a year you are willing to see this person and for how long.

Communicate your decision to others in your family whom your decision might impact. As hard as this may be, limiting exposure to this difficult person empowers and strengthens you during the times you are around them.

6. Visualize a Barrier

Think about an invisible, unbreakable wall between you and the difficult person. Visualize their negative words and actions bouncing off this wall like arrows on a stone fortress. They simply fall to the ground.

Now visualize that same wall absorbing all of your negative reactions. When you feel anger or hurt in response to this person, imagine the wall absorbing those feelings and making the barrier even stronger. Behind the wall you are calm and peaceful.

7. Feel Empathy for Them

This is hard to do for someone who is genuinely a real pain. But accept that this person is doing the best they know how to do in the moment. People are where they are on the ladder of introspection and personal growth. You can’t drag them up the rungs. They must want to climb it themselves.

People are complicated and have layers of hurts and disappointments that hold them back. Bad behavior is usually just a symptom of a deeper wound. Have empathy for that.

yoga man

8. Find Ways to Stay Centered

Practice activities that help you stay centered and calm. Meditate regularly, practice yoga, exercise, walk in nature, listen to peaceful music, breathe deeply.

Practicing peace is the best proactive thing you can do to help you stay centered when you encounter a difficult person. Build up your reserves of calm and you won’t be as quick to react.

9. Build Up your Pool of “Happy People”

Seek out and nurture relationships with people who fill your cup and enliven you. The more people you have like this in your life, the more emotional and mental support you have as a barrier between you and Mr. or Ms. Mean.

If your life is generally happy and fulfilled, then a few bad apples won’t spoil the whole bunch.

10. Seek Help if Needed

I have a few friends whose parents are the bad apples. Oh my, this is such a difficult dynamic.

We all need our parents to be kind and supportive and loving. But when they aren’t, it’s nearly impossible to let them go completely. The pain can be deep and scarring.

Sometimes only a professional can help you navigate these murky waters. Seek this help willingly so that the pain from this dysfunctional relationship doesn’t infect your “happy people” or your own soul.

Dealing with difficult people is never easy, but it is an unpleasant task well worth the investment of time and emotional energy.

When you set boundaries or even let go of people who do not support and nourish you, you reclaim a part of yourself.

You discover energy and well-being that allows you to evolve into the best person you can be – for yourself and those around you.

Read more from Barrie Davenport, a life and career coach, at Live Bold and Bloom, her blog about fearless living.

Comments

  1. Excellent article Barrie and thanks for writing it for my readers.

    The hardest thing I have had to learn is to let go of people. As I have gone on my long journey of personal development I have learnt about how challenging some people can be – and it has been an eye opener too about how challenging I must have been to the other people in the past!

    Now I find that people who I am no longer in harmony with naturally fade away from my life.

    I have learnt that no matter how compassionate and caring I want to be towards all people, including the ones who I am challenged by, there comes a time when I just have to let them go. It is for your own good and your own growth as well as theirs.

    You can continue to care for all the people in the world – but they just don’t all need to be in your rollodex or contacts list.

    • Thank you Arvind so much for inviting me to write a guest post. You are right, letting people go is part of personal growth for you and the person involved. It’s hard to do, but most hard things broaden your awareness and understanding if you allow it.

  2. Difficult people have one thing in common. They play games and they try to put you in their game by their rules. They are very disappointed when they realize that we ignore them or when we directly tell them that we don’t want to play. But we have to be aware of their games. Sometimes they catch us unprepared.

    • Zmajeva, people who play games are very frustrating. You think everything is going well, and then, bam, they throw you a curve ball. It is rarely worth riding on this roller coaster.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  7. Barrie –

    I liked this post. Sadly our personal nirvana is sometimes disturbed by difficult people!! I think #7 is the best advice of all – empathy and understanding. In my experience very few people are really difficult (and none of us is perfect). Figuring out “what is really going on here to drive this behaviour?”, asking and showing some compassion can change our relationship with difficult people. They may become one of our happy people one day. What’s more by caring, we become a happy person ourself. Thanks for the post!

    Phil

    • Phil, you are absolutely right!

      Empathy and caring sometimes completely disarms a difficult person and the pain or sadness underneath comes to the surface. It takes a really centered and secure person to understand this and look past bad behavior.

      There are some people whose behavior will never change sadly. Those are the people we need to set boundaries around. They can completely drain us.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Barrie

  8. That was awesome. I’m happy to be the muse and desperately hope I’m one of the happy people not the difficult one! Thank you. I think it will help. In my case which you know so well, it’s the nagging and tugging of disappointment and hurt at my heartstrings that holds me up from being my best self. Certainly interactions cause the frequency of tuggings to go up so I concsiously limit those. But then there are my girls. I had a loving, doting grandma and great grandma that had such a positive affect on who I am. I want that for them. Alas. Maybe not to be.

  9. That’s a great post, Barrie!
    I have one particularly difficult person in my life who I love enormously (she is my grandmother) but sometimes being around her for more than 5 minutes is a real torture. I have found that building an invisible barrier is my best strategy to stay calm and positive no matter what. I always remind myself that I love her a lot and that she is a wonderful person but sometimes she is just too difficult to deal with. My task is to be the perfect granddaughter for her and show her only respect and love. This loving attitude always brings the best results because I know that my grandmother loves me a lot too.

    • Anastasiya and Jodi,

      Thank you for your comments. It is so hard to have a very close family member who can create havoc in your life. These are not people you can excommunicate completely, so it is a process of careful management of yourself and the other person.

      By showing love and respect in spite of the other person’s behavior, you are creating a protective barrier that prevents you from sinking down in your own behavior. Thank you both for sharing your stories.

      Barrie

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  12. Dealing with difficult people is indeed no easy task. What you have stated here are powerful ways to deal with them. However, without resilience and dedication on our part, we can never overcome this challenge. 🙂

    • Walter,

      Thank you for your comment. It does take resilience. It can hurt dealing with these types of people, but we must respect ourselves enough to address the problem in a healthy way.

      Barrie

  13. Hi Barrie,

    I think a lot of people miss the point of why these people arrive in our lives.

    1. They are a reflection of us
    2. Their negativity is there to balance us
    3. They challenge us to grow

    I got sent an email today which wasn’t constructive so, like point 3 I had to have a talk with them and I think that’s the part which so many people miss. it was a glorious opportunity for me to be upfront with someone and tell them how I felt, not to stand there and take it while I took a mental trip to lala land.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Amit,
      You make a wonderful point. I wish I’d included that in my post! There is a reason we attract these people into our lives. We need to figure it out and address it in order to grow.

      Thank you!
      Barrie

  14. These are excellent tips. I found what works well for me in dealing with difficult people, is first I must ground myelf. I have to be in my own vibrational clear space before I enter into a situation where the person may prove to be difficult. From this clear space, I can make a better descion on how to deal with the person, because I am a little more clear and have a compassion for where the person may be coming from. I try to see the light and good in all people, by first being grounded myself.

    • Baker, that is great advice. When you are mentally and emotionally prepared, it is much easier to handle difficult people. Sometimes I get caught off-guard by people, and that’s usually when I am most reactive. I guess it’s good to start every day grounded — just in case, right??!

      Thank you for your comment!

      Barrie

  15. Barrie,

    Good points, we all have some people in our life that are difficult, worse sometimes we might be difficult person ourselves without knowing it 🙂 I recently had to let go of some close but toxic friendship, it was hard but had it be done.

    Arvind, great guest post as always! I am so happy for the blog this has become now, although I have always liked it for a year that I am reading now.

    • Thank you Zengirl. I thought about that as I was writing this post. I wonder if I’m ever the person someone else has to “deal” with. That would be awful, but I’d want to know. I don’t ever be the reason for pulling someone else down.

      Thank you for your nice comments.

      Barrie

  16. This is a great topic and post. I feel fortunate that almost everyone in my life is loving and supportive. I have chosen to have these people in my lives. Even my bosses have all been great. For some reason I have that expectation and it has always worked.

    Recently I did have an experience that pushed me to the limit to find compassion. My cousin was in a serious motorcycle accident and is still in a coma with serious brain damage. His mother did NOT go to his side. They had not spoken in four years.

    I felt enraged at his mother and my immediate thoughts were I never want to look at her face again. A couple days later listening to a wonderful healing tape, I had a tremendous experience of compassion in general. I realized she needed compassion too. I felt for all the pain that had brought her to this place in her life.

    Now, I no longer feel resentful toward her.

    Your suggestions are excellent. We can choose to limit our time with someone. We can talk with them from the HEART, as you suggest. Speaking from the heart is, I feel, the best way to approach someone for the possibility of healing and change.

    Thanks for a great post!
    Lauren

    • Thank you so much Lauren. Wow, that is very sad about your cousin. I would have a hard time with that scenario as well. What could be so bad between a mother and child that the mother wouldn’t reach out during a time of crisis. She must be really wounded herself. I’m glad you found compassion for her. Your comment was lovely.

      Best to you,
      Barrie

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  20. Great article! Thank you for writing this. I have only recently felt okay with letting people ‘go’ when I feel they are dragging me down. My family is generally negative, and I have recently realized that boundaries are healthy and that it’s okay for me to keep my distance. Ultimately, I need to protect myself. Also, I have let go of a couple of childhood friends. This wasn’t easy, but ultimately I am much better off because of it.

    I definitely have to ground myself when faced with ‘trolls’. If I can’t stand up for myself properly, I tell myself that I know what it is I want and that even though I am suffering some vulnerable pain from whatever criticism I’ve just heard, I am shielded. Yes, I guess I do put up a reflective shield also. And if I am feeling insecure, I try to imagine the insecurity as a tangible substance, such as a smoke or fume that leaves my body and disintegrates into the air. It helps to see it as an object, in my view.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Lynn,
      I’ve only recently learned to let go of people as well. It’s hard to do, but I think as we realize the energy drain of some people in our lives, we come to the conclusion that time is too precious to spend too much of it with them.

      The hardest part for me has been hurting or upsetting other people. But I have to balance that against the on-going pain that difficult people create for me.

      I like the idea of the shield when you encounter negativity. That’s a brilliant idea.

      Thank you so much for commenting!

      Warmly,

      Barrie

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