Tips for Dealing With a Difficult Person

A confused scratching her head woman standing in front of a chalkboard with question marks written all over it.
A confused scratching her head woman standing in front of a chalkboard with question marks written all over it.

All of us are forced to deal with a difficult person from time to time. He or she can be almost anyone -- a spouse, in-law, other relative, friend, coworker, or boss. The perpetrator might even be you or (gasp!) me.

Which reminds me of what Rabbi Joseph Richards said: "People are annoying. So find the person who annoys you the least and marry that one!

Perhaps such reframing of "difficult" to "normal" can help us relax a bit when it comes to thinking about constructive responses to people by whom we feel besieged. Both eternal Jewish teachings and current psychological ones can help us move from an impulsive fight-or-flight mode to ones that foster more of a sense of well-being in ourselves and often in the "offending" party as well.

Don't Take the Bait

It is easy to lash back in anger or defensiveness when someone's behavior pushes one of our buttons, thinking we're showing strength and an unwillingness to be treated badly. But by doing so we are actually taking the bait, which only exacerbates the situation. Much wiser is to apply this teaching from the Jewish sage, Ben Zoma, who asks, "Who is strong?"

He answers, "He who subdues his personal inclination... He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city."

Subduing our inclination to respond in kind to difficult behaviors does not mean enabling another person to behave poorly. It means learning to respond in a way that supports both our own well-being and often the other person's, as will soon be explained.

After leading a Dealing with a Difficult Person workshop for corporate employees, I realized that similar communications skills that enrich marriage and other personal relationships, when applied in the workplace will enhance teamwork and effectiveness.

To move from simply feeling annoyed by a difficult person to responding constructively, it helps to understand the likely underlying reasons for the troublesome behavior. Here's how to do this, using guilt-trippers, scorekeepers, and blamers as examples of difficult behaviors:

Guilt-tripper

Instead of expressing their wants and feelings directly, they say things to make others feel guilty. Example: "Go ahead and watch TV while I do the dishes and then put the kids to bed. I feel a migraine coming on but I'll manage. And I still have to get up early tomorrow to finish that project at work." (sigh)

Underlying Reason: Guilt trippers lack self-esteem. Consequently, they don't feel worthy of asking directly for what they want. They may act like a martyr, hoping the other person will get the hint. When that doesn't happen they become resentful or depressed.

Solution: Encourage guilt trippers to express themselves clearly. Ask your partner, "Do you want me to help more?" Please say specifically what you want. You can ask me for anything. I might not give you the moon, but if you ask me to do a simple chore, I'd probably say 'fine.'"

Scorekeeper

A scorekeeper says nothing when upset but keeps track of each incident and eventually lets it all out at once. Example: "I was expecting you to call an hour ago to say you'd be late for dinner. I should have known you wouldn't call because you didn't let me know when you were over an hour late last Tuesday and three other times last month. And that time two years ago..."

Underlying Reason: Scorekeepers feel uncomfortable about making waves by complaining. Eventually, like a volcano, pressure accumulates and they spew out what's been building up.

Solution: Apologize for your part in causing discomfort. Say you prefer to hear what's bothering the person each time rather than have resentments accumulate.

Blamer:

Blamers accuse others of being inadequate, using You-statements and name-calling, such as "You're a jerk," "a slob," or "stupid."

Underlying Reason: Blamers lack self-esteem and feel unsafe expressing themselves with I-statements, such as "I'm disappointed (or I feel disrespected or frustrated)" by your lateness." They're more likely to say, "You're always late," or "You're rude." An insecure person who feels inferior to his partner, fearing abandonment, might unconsciously resort to blaming or putting down the other, hoping to erode the latter's self-esteem to the point that she or he won't think they can find a better mate.

Solution: Compose yourself with a couple of deep breaths, so you won't respond impulsively. Try to be objective. Ask yourself, "Am I at fault?" Either way, respond calmly and respectfully: "Yes, I often to run late and I hear this bothers you. It's my problem of trying to do just one more thing before I leave. I don't mean to be disrespectful."

If you realize you're being falsely accused, state your disagreement calmly. If you're being unjustly accused of lying, for example, say, "I'm actually careful to be truthful." You can also politely ask the person to give an example of what he or she is accusing you.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Yet living with difficult behaviors can be toxic.

Challenge Yourself to be Show Compassion

These are three kinds of difficult behaviors. If you're on the receiving end of any of them, use common sense. If you can muster up compassion for someone who is being difficult, the person will sense this and feel less of a need to project his or her insecurities on you. You can also become part of the solution by using positive communication techniques, as illustrated step by step in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, and you may be happily surprised by the results.

In any case, do not trap yourself into staying around toxic behavior. If it continues despite your efforts to defuse it, be willing to walk away, at least momentarily.

Remember: We cannot change another person's behavior; we can only change our own.