How to Deal With Difficult People Graciously

We all have difficult people in our lives.

You know, those people who are in our lives that just seem to bring out the worst in us, push our buttons or make us crazy. Unfortunately, life isn't always as simple as Facebook would imply; unfriending and unfollowing difficult people offline isn't always an option.

But while we can't always choose who comes into our lives, how we respond to them is within our control.

A few things I've found that help:

1. Reframe the moment.

When someone we love or admire does something we don't like, it's easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. If they do something thoughtless, we attribute it to them having a bad day -- not to them being a jerk. But when someone we know has a track record of bad behavior, we come to expect it and see everything they do through that lens. Imagine how you would react to the same behavior from someone you love.

2. Don't go looking for trouble.

This is the simplest one, but definitely not the easiest. It's hard for our egos to let go of wanting to feel justified. Maybe this means minimizing your interactions; maybe it means you choose to stay on easy topics when you have conversations. There will be enough times they rile you up or vice versa; no need to be the one to get it going.

3. "Be a thermostat, not a thermometer."

I remember the lecturer at my high school graduation using this phrase, and it stuck with me. If we are consistently working on our own mindfulness, our own compassion and our own presence, it's much easier to set the tone of an interaction. If we are running in a million directions, chaotic inside and out and not practicing compassion toward ourselves, we will often end up reflecting back the chaos that comes our way to others instead.

4. Imagine the person's negative acts as an illness.

If you were standing next to someone, and they were coughing like they were about to hack up a lung, chances are you'd feel sympathy, possibly offer assistance, and keep a healthy distance away. I've found this reframing to be incredibly helpful when dealing with difficult people. You wouldn't stand around and let someone throw up on you -- but you probably wouldn't have some giant, lingering anger towards them about it either. When someone is spewing garbage in your direction, see this for the illness that it is, wish them well and take some space.

5. Channel your inner Elsa and "Let it go!"

Doing the first four things will help, but ultimately, it's a practice. Instead of adding to the tally sheet of how you've been wronged, take a deep breath and shift your mental gaze to something else you appreciate. It's a hard thing to look at, but people can only bring out from us what's in there to begin with. If you hate it that interacting with someone brings out the worst in you, let go of what they did, and direct that energy towards working on what's inside.

Letting go of these things doesn't mean becoming a doormat, or excusing abusive behavior in others -- ever. What it means is that we take responsibility for ourselves and our reactions. Jonathan Swift said it well:

"We cannot change the wind, but we can adjust our sails."

If we can shift our attitudes, we can allow difficult things to be wind that propels us forward instead of knocking us down.

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Tattooed Buddha.


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