23 Jan 2007

Dealing with difficult people

I’d be hiding a great secret if I said I haven’t had one or two major realizations from reading Psychology Today. It’s full of excellent tips and shows you how to build skills for getting further in life by breaking down obstacles within yourself and working around others. This article on dealing with difficult people is one I’d particularly like to share because it is the one that crops up so frequently in a world where we are so closely packed together in life’s little rat cage.

‘… our immediate response to the verbal slights or manipulative barbs of a difficult person is often to fight back. Your immediate reaction is, “I can’t stand this crazy, insulting behavior.”

We too quickly jump to our own defense when we feel insulted. We do so because we have evolved a hypervigilant concern for our standing among peers. This focus on status makes sense as a play for dominance and power, qualities that translate into real mating options. The need to retain status is an example of Neanderthink. This knee-jerk demand for status can push us to get outraged and to lose focus on larger goals, such as keeping your job or your mate. We want to prove that we are correct—but doing it angrily and intolerantly can hinder your major objectives. Dominance at every turn is good, but not a necessity…’

… ‘Sure, you need to stand up for yourself, but do so without demanding that you be above criticism at all costs. Remind yourself of your long-range goals: saving time, energy, hassle and maybe even your own hide…’

Staying Rational When Confronting the Difficult Person

  1. If you’re required to respond to an irrational attack, ask the antagonist what exactly he is upset about, in order to show that you are interested in communicating rather than in arguing. The burden of responsibility is now back on the antagonist.
  2. After the unreasonable salvo, go ahead and agree with a kernel of truth in the complaint. You’ll overcome your own Neanderthink impulse to jump into the fray by looking for that one small fact about which the critic is correct—and then agreeing with that single point. Your boss calls you a screw-up. Ask, “In what way did I screw up?” If she says, “You just are a screw up,” agree with one discreet example (if it is accurate), but correct her overgeneralization.
  3. You can more easily and tactfully defend yourself once the emotional heat has abated. Say your boss says, “Again, you’re totally screwing up.” You can defend without a defensive tone: “It is true that I made a mistake, and I appreciate constructive feedback to minimize errors in the future.” Stand up for yourself by reiterating the specific error, but refuse to be incorrectly labeled a screw-up.
  4. Offer to the difficult person your best guess as to what he or she is feeling, and ask for feedback. “It sounds like you’re angry right now, and I’m sorry about that.” This demonstrates a willingness to understand the difficult person’s frustration without blame or defensiveness.
  5. Resist the urge to fight to win the argument. Listening and asking questions leads others to their own better conclusions. This process is known as the Socratic method. Although it didn’t ultimately help Socrates, today’s laws are a bit more enlightened—so it might help you.


  • alice
    January 25, 2007 Reply

    great article! i need to take some of this advice. by the way – happy new year!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.