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How to deal with difficult people?


We have all had a time in our lives when we would have had a very difficult person to deal with. Be it a family member, a co-worker, someone in our church, or even someone on the street. Reasoning is incredibly difficult – the truth is, you can’t reason with an unreasonable person. However, there are proven techniques to better manage such challenging situations. A definite skill must be acquired over time and requires great effort to master.

These tips may feel unnatural at first. When we are dealing with a person behaving unreasonably, the fear response centre in our brain (the fight-flight-response) is going to be activated. As human beings, we are wired to either fight, or to take flight, when we are confronted with conflict; most often the response is defensive and aggressive. What must be noted is that the fight or flight response centre of our brain can’t distinguish between someone screaming at us angrily and a vicious dog about to attack. As a result, it is up to the individual to engage his or her conscious mind in an effort to defuse the situation. Some of these tips are general, suggesting a mindset to cultivate. Others are more specific in advising you what to do in the moment.

1. Listen. 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, focus on what the other person is saying, not what you want to say next.

2. Stay calm. When a situation is emotionally charged, it’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Monitor your breathing. Try to take some slow, deep breaths.

3. 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 or fear.

4. Reflect respect and dignity toward the other person. No matter how a person is treating you, showing contempt will not resolve the situation.

5. Look for the hidden need. What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid?

6. Look for others around you who might be able to help. If you’re at work and there’s an irate customer, quickly scan to see if a colleague is close by.

7. Don’t demand compliance. For example, telling someone who’s upset to be quiet and calm down will just make them more irritated. Instead, ask the person what they are upset about – and allow them to vent.

8. Saying, “I understand”, usually makes things worse. Instead, say, “Tell me more, so I can understand better.”

9. Avoid smiling, as this may look like you are mocking the person. Similarly, humour is risky and it may backfire.

10. Don’t act defensively. You’re naturally not enjoying the other person saying nasty things or things that aren’t true and will want to defend yourself. But remember, the other person is emotionally charged; it’s not going to help. This is not about you, so don’t take it personally.

11. Don’t argue or return anger with anger. Raising your voice, pointing your finger, or speaking disrespectfully to that person will add fuel to an already heated situation. Use a low, calm, even monotone voice and wait until the person takes a breath, then speak.

12. Keep extra space between you and the other person. Your instinct may be to try to calm them by putting your arm on theirs, or some other similar gesture. But if someone is already upset, avoid touching, as it might be misinterpreted.

13. Saying, “I’m sorry”, or, “I’m going to try to fix this”, can go a long way toward defusing many situations.

14. Set limits and boundaries. You have the right to be assertive and say, “Please, don’t talk to me like that”.

15. Trust your instincts. Be prepared if a situation is going downhill fast. Look for an exit strategy.

16. Debrief. After the encounter, talk to someone about it.

17. Discharge your own stress. You had to put your natural reactions on hold. Now is the time to discharge some of that pent up adrenaline. Go for a run; take a swim; listen to some soothing music.

18. Don’t skip this step! It is important to pat yourself on the shoulder when you have successfully diffused a bad situation. It is not an easy feat.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.