I like to imagine that I’m a kind, patient person. That I embody calm when confronted with prickly personalities. That their aggravations roll off me like water off a duck’s back. But this delusion is quickly dispelled every time I have a run-in with a difficult person.
Take last week: My friend (let’s call her Liz) and I decided to meet at noon for lunch. She’s often late, so I took my time walking over to the café. But mid-stroll, I became paranoid that Liz would be punctual for once, so I rushed to be there on the dot. She was nowhere to be seen. I breathed deeply, rationalizing that now I had some coveted alone time. That lasted all of four minutes. At 12:08, I called Liz on her cell, convinced I’d given her the wrong address. She never picked up. Ten minutes later, she showed up with a big smile and zero apology.
“Oh, don’t be mad at me. You know I’m always late,” she said. “It’s just part of my personality. Besides, haven’t you enjoyed all the great people watching?” My reaction was less like a duck, more like a rabid dog. The worst part was that my emotional equilibrium had been knocked off-kilter. It took me a good 15 minutes to calm down enough to actually enjoy spending time with my friend.
Trying personalities like Liz’s are everywhere — in your home (possibly sharing your bed), at the office, in your book club. They may even be complete strangers. What makes them difficult may be an undisputed character flaw — they’re sycophantic or self-centered or perpetually gloomy — or simply a quirk that rubs you the wrong way. But inevitably, a brush with them leaves you fuming or at least out of sorts.
Instead of devising elaborate avoidance schemes or barbed comebacks, you can change your dynamic with these sanity stealers. Use the following strategies to end the emotional tug-of-war, once and for all.
Turn the Spotlight on You
“You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them,” says Rick Kirschner, N.D., coauthor of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand. That requires some self-examination.
People who irritate us usually have something to show us about ourselves. “Ask yourself: How is this person holding up the mirror to me?” suggests Sandra Crowe, author of Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. For example, being around my chronically late friend reminds me how quick-tempered and impatient I can be — not my favorite traits. Reminding myself of this may keep me from bouncing off the walls when I find myself waiting for her yet again.
Turn the Spotlight on You continued…
If it’s a good friend or intimate, think, too, about your own behavior in the relationship. Have you contributed to the strain by saying yes instead of no too many times? Did you neglect to signal early on that something was bothering you? “If you don’t look at your own actions, you end up making the other person 100 percent of the problem,” explains Susan Fee, author of Dealing with Difficult People: 83 Ways to Stay Calm, Composed, and in Control. That also puts the solution squarely in her hands — and out of yours.
Delving into the root cause of your frustration can turn up problem-solving insights. Fee provides an example from her own life: “When I first got married, my mother-in-law drove me crazy. She was always hovering and intrusive. But after asking myself again and again why she bothered me so much, I realized what was going on: Her behavior was foreign to me because I never knew what it was like to be mothered — when I was 12, my mom had a debilitating stroke. It became clear that this was just my mother-in-law’s way of showing her love for me. Once I understood that, our relationship improved.”
“Most of the time, difficult people just want something different than we do,” says Ronna Lichtenberg, author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People. “Or they handle things differently.”
It’s no surprise, then, that you may be your difficult person’s difficult person. It could be a matter of opposite outlooks: Super-friendly people, for instance, may be at odds with all-business-all-the-time types — and vice versa. The same goes for laid-back folks and workaholics. Understanding those basic differences gives you a glimpse of someone else’s viewpoint, which may help temper your irritation.
If you’re having trouble feeling empathetic toward someone you care about, try analyzing her behavior. This strategy worked for Alicyn Mindel, a mom of two from Providence who struggled for years with her friend “Dina,” who was a terrible listener. “Whenever I started talking about my personal problems, she would turn the conversation around to herself. Then, one day, a different pal was talking about attention-starved people, and I realized Dina fit the description perfectly. From that moment on, every time Dina and I got together, I gave her a big, long hug. The transformation was amazing: She became warmer, more open, and over time, she started asking me about my life — without segueing into her own issues.”
Choose Your Approach
Armed with your insights, you now need to decide whether to confront the perpetrator. As a general rule, you should talk things over only with someone you’re close to, whether that’s your husband or a longtime colleague. It’s probably not worth stirring the pot if you only see him once a month, like an in-law or acquaintance on the PTA board. (For people you don’t know at all — say, the salesclerk who’s more interested in her cell phone chat than in helping you — you’ll need a different strategy.)
You can also skip the conversation if you know it will fall on deaf ears, or if you suspect it will be taken the wrong way. That was the case with Mindel: “I never addressed the issue with Dina because she tends to be defensive. I knew I’d have a better chance of fixing our friendship by changing my actions.” A good litmus test for determining whether or not to start a conversation is first to imagine the worst-case scenario. Then ask yourself, Will our relationship survive? If you’re confident it will, set up a time to talk. If it won’t, try a tactic that’s less confrontational.
Start a Dialogue…
Before you say anything, you have to do a little homework. How exactly do you want the behavior to change? In the long term, what are you expecting from this relationship? Until you can answer those questions, you’re not ready to talk to anyone.
If you fear a bad reaction, plan ahead: “Figure out in advance how you’re going to respond,” advises Fee. “Will you walk away? Breathe deeply until he calms down?” This exercise can also help you focus on what might trigger a heated response.
Make sure no one will interrupt the conversation and pick a time when you’re not hungry or tired, so you can give it your full attention.
…And Follow These Talking Tips
- Start the conversation with sincere flattery — it’s especially effective if you’re afraid you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings. With loved ones, “explain that the reason you’re having this talk is that you care so much and want to improve the relationship,” suggests Fee.
- Call out the behavior, not the person. “You need to learn how to separate the individual from the act,” Lichtenberg explains. “Confronting someone is not so different from disciplining a kid. You don’t say to your child, ‘You’re bad!’ You say, ‘It’s bad that you drew on the wall.’”
- Cite specific examples of what’s bothering you. Avoid vague comments like, “You’re such a snob.” Instead say, “Last week, you made three disparaging comments about the clothes I was wearing.”
- Spell out what you want to change. The next time your Freud-wannabe friend tries to be your personal shrink, you can say, “I appreciate your advice, and I know you want to be helpful. But most of the time, I really just want an ear. I’m telling you this because I want to be able to share things with you.”
- Request feedback as soon as possible. If you don’t, it can turn into a lecture. Right away ask, “What do you think about what I’ve said?” Or, “Have you been feeling the same way?”
- Pay attention to more than your words. “Only 7 percent of communication is what you’re actually saying — the rest is your tone of voice, expression, and body language,” says Kimberly Alyn, author of How to Deal with Annoying People.
Take a Less Direct Approach
Sitting down for a heart-to-heart won’t work with everyone. At times it’s better to resolve an issue in a more roundabout way, even with loved ones. For example, humor can be especially effective. If your sister has a habit of psychoanalyzing you every time you chat, Alyn suggests saying, “Wow, I feel like I should be lying on a couch for this. How much do I owe you?” Here, more ways to fix those frustrating interactions:
- Put the difficult person to good use. When Bette Walter, an entrepreneur in Blue Bell, PA, is considering a new business move, she turns to a friend who always shoots down her plans: “I ask her what she thinks before she can tell me what a dumb idea it is. She’s very logical, so it’s helpful.” For know-it-alls, steer the conversation toward a topic you’re interested in, so you can at least learn something until you can make your getaway.
- Remember this rule: If you can predict it, you can plan for it. “If you see an incessantly forlorn coworker walking your way, get up and leave your desk,” says Kirschner. “Or pick up the phone and pretend you’re speaking to someone. If you stop listening to her, she’ll eventually stop coming over.”
- Get the last word. If someone is giving you unsolicited advice, saying “Thanks” will usually put an end to her rant. When you’re around a braggart, just smile, advises Crowe. Then reply, “Wow, that’s really great. I’m so happy for you.”
- Plan an exit strategy. When you can’t get a chatty person off the phone, pretend that you’ve been interrupted by someone else, so you can quickly say, “Sorry, gotta go.”
Take a Less Direct Approach continued…
My ultimate strategy is to remind myself that every strength is a weakness and every weakness, a strength. Yes, my friend Liz is always late, but her time-isn’t-an-issue attitude also makes her relaxed and carefree — and that’s what I love about her. The next time we meet, I plan to bring a good book. Or maybe I’ll just tell her to meet at 11:40 instead of noon, so that we both show up right on time.