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Cheat Sheet for Dealing with Difficult People

by | Sep 13, 2015

I hope I am wrong, but I suspect that we all know someone who brings difficulty to circumstances that you know shouldn’t be difficult. Sometimes it seems as though difficult people can see their place in the world only if they can shake things up around them.

There are a number of causes for high-conflict behavior. Most of the time, the antagonist will not recognize his or her role as common denominator and will be completely uninterested in working on his or her character.

What I’m saying is, even if you’re aware of what’s going on, this isn’t a problem you can fix.

The good news is, you’re not completely powerless. What you can do is control your own reactions to situations as they arise, to minimize the difficult person’s affect on you. There are some things to keep in mind so that you don’t end up an unwilling participant in the high-conflict person’s antics.

Deactivate your own hot buttons

We all have them. As living, breathing humans with emotions, we have vulnerabilities. Some can be generalized to most people, such as love for children or a desire for a basic level of respect. Others are more personalized.

Difficult people pick up on others’ sensitivities and use them to exert control. If an antagonist senses an access point, he or she can use it to stir anger or pain, which engages defense mode and weakens rationality.

If we are aware of our own weaknesses before dealing with difficult people, we can easily recognize when they try to exploit our sensitive spots. And when we know what is happening, we can observe their attempts without engaging in battle.

Don’t bite

Recognize when a high-conflict person is targeting you for his or her next go-round. When you’re being baited, simply choose not to take it. It’s very rare that someone can force you to argue.

Ask questions

Especially in the workplace, the situation may require you to respond to accusations or conflict. In this instance, ask the antagonist to explain himself or herself. “You say I am the worst bike messenger you’ve ever known. Can you be more specific?”

No need to offer explanations if anger is involved. Just keep asking broad questions.

This is an easy way to determine whether a true resolution is possible, because asking for explanation puts the onus on the other person to come up with a solution.

Leave the conversation without leaving

It is useless to try to resolve a true conflict if the antagonist is just flying off of the handle. Sometimes we have to wait for rational thinking to return.

If you sense that is where the antagonist is, focus only on what he or she is saying and do not respond. If you must respond, simply mirror back what they are saying without offering anything else.

I see you’re angry. I’m hearing that you think I’m a terrible mail carrier. You look very frustrated. You are displeased with something.

Responding in this way takes all judgment out of the equation. It’s just like making a comment about a stray dog passing by without interacting with the dog. There’s no agreeing, there’s no disagreeing. Save that discussion for later. For now, try to view the person’s attacks as bubbles. Watch them pass, watch them pop. And then they’re gone.

Redefine winning

Naturally, when we are wrongly accused of something, we want to defend ourselves and change the other person’s mind.

When difficult people stir conflict, sometimes the conflict is the goal, not resolution. The antagonist seeing our side of the story doesn’t appear in the list of possible outcomes.

We have to define winning as maintaining our composure under attack. Not only does this eliminate the chance that we’ll say something we regret, but it will also make us less exciting as a target for next time.

Accept the difficult person’s suchness

A rock is a rock, and we can’t turn it into ice cream. Similarly, an affinity for conflict is woven into the difficult person’s suchness, or their true nature.

If you’re reading this, you may be preparing for a visit or a meeting with someone you’ve gone as far as to categorize as a “difficult person.” If we accept this about someone and come to expect their antics, we will never be surprised or caught off-guard when the teapot starts to whistle.

It is terribly unfortunate, but high-conflict people could be suffering from a personality disorder, or they have picked up some maladaptive traits along the way.

In short, it’s possible that something very bad happened and they are in pain.

It is important to remember that we did not create the pain and we cannot take it away. We cannot change their suchness. We can however, decide not to play along, and hope that someday they will give up on us.

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