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Updated 07 March 2014

7 ways to deal with difficult people

Think of the most difficult people you know. You can't always escape them. But they're really impossible. Here's how to deal with them.

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Everyone has one or two difficult people in their lives. Either at work, or at home or in their extended families. We cannot always escape them. Try as hard as we might. There are some people who are enough to make a mule back away from an oat bin.

  • "Don't you think you would look better if you changed your hairstyle?" says your mother-in-law.
  • "I know that's what I told you to do yesterday, but I have changed my mind now," says your boss.
  • "I've been waiting for five minutes in this queue. I demand to see the manager," says the difficult customer.
  • "I've been sick for three days, but I don't suppose it matters to you, does it?" says your elderly father.

These difficult people have a couple of characteristics in common:

  • They collect perceived injustices like other people collect stamps.
  • They will look past nine positive things and pick out one negative thing.
  • They take a perverse kind of joy in playing the "Ain't it awful?" game.
  • There is a subtext to their moaning, namely "So what are you going to do about it?"
  • They love complaining about things over which you have little or no control, like the weather.
  • They are exhausting to be with, not to speak of exasperating.
  • They strip you of positive feelings, hope and optimism by their constant harping on the negative.
  • They make you feel helpless, hopeless and trapped.

What you can do to deal with them

Don't disagree. These people thrive on confrontation and that's exactly what they're trying to elicit from you. If you get on your high horse and start fighting, most of the time you'll be giving them exactly what they want. They've been fighting all their lives and you will not win if you engage with them on that level. Answers like "I'll think about it" and "Yes, it's terrible, isn't it?" let you off the hook. It buys time, it's a reply, but it doesn't engage you in the hoped-for confrontation.

Put the ball in their court. Say "I'm sorry that you feel that way". It sounds like an apology, but is everything but. It actually says that you feel pity for them that they've chosen to approach things in this manner.

Acknowledge their right to an opinion. If you say, "I suppose everyone has the right to their opinion", you also don't engage them. At the same time, you stress the fact that you're entitled to a different opinion.

Challenge with a smile. Difficult people are caught unawares by friendliness. If they're harping on about things beyond your control, there are two questions that usually put an end to their ramblings. One is, "What do you think I can do about it?" and the other is, "So what is there you can do about it?"

Minimise contact. These people haemorrhage energy from you. Avoid them as far as you can. If you can't, involve them in some way so that they share responsibility for what they would like to criticise. If your mother-in-law cooked half the Christmas lunch, she is less likely to be negative about it.

Think of what they're feeling. The difficult customer complaining about the long queue feels overlooked and unimportant. Often a kind word of sympathy will go a long way towards calming them down and making them feel recognised. People often complain, because they feel neglected and are hoping that the complaint will galvanise you into action. In the case of family, or the ill father above, he needs reassurance and possibly half an hour of your time. It causes less friction to give it than to withhold it.

Don't let yourself be manipulated. Sometimes it is less hassle to give in once or twice, but if you are constantly being manipulated by someone into doing things they should be doing for themselves, it is time to learn to say no. This doesn't need to be done in a confrontational manner. Say "Sorry, that won't be possible today" or "I'll think about it" if you don't want to be blunt.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated March 2013)

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