Difficult person pointing

A Therapist’s Guide on How To Deal With Difficult People

We all have people in our lives that can light up any room they walk into. And sometimes just being in their presence makes us feel warm, comfortable, and welcome. But as with everything in life, polar opposites also exist – and we all know a few people we’d rather avoid at all costs.

Difficult people come in many forms. Maybe it’s a coworker that always has something negative to say about everything. Perhaps it’s a family member you can never talk to without the conversation becoming an argument. Or maybe it’s your spouse and they’re just absolutely difficult sometimes. No matter who it is, these people tend to make our lives a little more labor intensive – in any situation.

The good news is that with a little empathy and logic, you can deal with difficult people. And though no magic formula exists for everyone, the following offers a professional take on how you can deal with difficult people and get some peace back in your life.

Could you use help dealing with difficult people in your life? Reach out to the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy and talk to an expert today.

Why Are Difficult People, Difficult?

5 Primary Causes for the Development of Difficult Behavior Infographic

Sometimes it may feel like a particular person is just difficult to be around or communicate with on each and every encounter. But this behavior may stem from a variety of factors, perhaps even as a result of “useful” behavior a person once developed during childhood.

According to Geoffrey Hillback, LCSW, Psychotherapist with the Lukin Center, “Every behavior has, or once had, a purpose. More often than not, difficult behaviors were likely an effective means for a person to get what they wanted when they were younger – around the age of seven, or even at 13 or 19. But if their development was arrested for one reason or another, they probably haven’t matured or developed new ways of getting what they want.”

A person may develop a behavior pattern that’s just difficult to deal with for a myriad of reasons, or even as a means of manipulation. But a few common reasons why this behavior has been developed may include:

  • Response to trauma
  • Coping mechanism for difficulties in childhood
  • Modeling
  • A history of being enabled
  • Psychological protection

Most difficult behaviors are developed as a means of protection that keeps an individual safe from attack or to get something that they want. In addition, Hillback states “an individual may develop these behaviors in order to protect their ego, job, self-image, or a variety of other things,” he says.

What is the Best Way to Deal With Difficult People?

When you encounter someone who is being difficult, no matter if it’s an unwillingness to compromise, or someone who uses exceedingly negative or arrogant dialogue, the main thing to remember is that you need to ask yourself, what is it that you really want when dealing with this person?

According to Geoffrey Hillback, “Being aware of what we really want, and being aware of our own emotional state works hand-in-hand. Because when you’re cognizant of how someone’s behavior is making you respond, you can adjust your response accordingly and keep the conversation from becoming too triggering for both parties.”

Everyone wants to be heard. And often, difficult people may become even more difficult if they feel they’re not being listened to. Hillback offers, “Really listening to the other person and making sure that they know you’re listening is probably the most effective way to deal with anyone,” he says.

In addition, Hillback states that there are also semantic tools that you can use in a conversation that can be leveraged in order to help mitigate a defensive response. One way to do this is with I-statements. And these are simply statements that utilize the word “I” such as:

“I feel unimportant when you don’t acknowledge me.” Instead of, “You ignored me and that made me feel unimportant.” This way, by framing the statement differently, it’s less accusatory and is less likely to provoke a defensive response.

When Should You Draw the Line With a Difficult Person, and How?

While there is no magic formula that specifically states when and how you should draw a line with someone in response to difficult behavior, you can get clear with what you want and set boundaries accordingly.

Geoffrey Hillback offers that we as individuals should ask ourselves, “What is the actual impact that this type of behavior is having on my life, and is it my fault?” For example, Hillback says, “if someone is on the subway listening to something loudly without headphones, sure it can be annoying. But once you get off the subway, it’s no longer an annoyance. And this is just an example that gives us a way to measure the impact a thing – or a behavior – has on our lives.”

When looking to draw a line with a difficult person, the trick is in drawing the line for ourselves. And this simply means that once we’ve set our boundaries and repeatedly have had those boundaries breached, then measures should be taken to remove or otherwise mitigate our interaction with a certain person. Or it’s time to have a serious conversation about the relationship altogether – no matter if it’s a platonic relationship or romantic, or a work relationship.

Additionally, while avoiding a problem is not the most effective way to solve a problem, sometimes avoiding a difficult person is the best solution when all other measures have been exhausted.

“It’s not our job to police the difficult people of the world, because that would be exhausting if not impossible for anyone. There are just too many people who are difficult, annoying, frustrating, and so forth. And sometimes avoidance is the only way to allow peace back into our lives when all else has failed,” Hillback states.

Understanding Your Response

People can become frustrated over simple things. And when dealing with a difficult person, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of being angered and frustrated over someone’s response – forgetting the actual point of the conversation or interaction entirely.

According to Hillback, “There’s a thing called monkey mind – when we respond without thinking. And many of us get sucked into that type of response when dealing with a difficult person. It’s almost like a primitive fight or flight response, but we can become aware of it and adjust our responses in healthier ways,” he says.

The key to understanding your responses is simply in being cognizant of how you’re feeling when interacting with a difficult person and understanding the real impact the interaction is having on your life.

For example, when you realize that there is no real impact, it can be easier to control the interaction and not let it bother you. However, if there is a real impact that affects you, this is when measures need to be taken to let the difficult person know that their behavior is affecting your life – and that it needs to stop.

No matter the situation, letting a difficult person just “get their way” is not a solution. And this is because it’s this type of response that has likely enabled a person to get away with difficult behavior. This is where having an open, honest conversation about how their behavior affects you is usually the best way to deal with a difficult person.

Are you struggling with difficult people in your life? Reach out to the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy and talk to an expert today.