DEALING WITH A DIFFICULT PERSON
By Louise Whiteside
Who among us has not had someone in our life with whom we simply could not get along? Perhaps an overbearing boss, a complaining neighbor or an overly critical relative? So often we have tried to reason, communicate or compromise with such a person, only to run into frustration, feelings of helplessness or even eventual withdrawal from the individual. Many times we have blamed ourselves for our inability to interact successfully with this person; we may have reasoned that by being courteous or accommodating, we could resolve our differences.
Unfortunately, there are times when the usual techniques practiced in polite society just don’t work. The individual we are dealing with may present a unique problem. There are times when being “nice” or reasonable — or even a bit challenging — toward the person is futile, and may even exacerbate the situation. Indeed there are individuals who, for whatever reason, do not wish to live peaceably with others, but who actually thrive on a constant state of discord.
WHAT MAKES THESE INDIVIDUALS BEHAVE IN THE WAY THEY DO?
There are some possible reasons:
(1) Low self-esteem: Some individuals feel the need to compensate for deep-seated feelings of inferiority by making others feel inferior.
(2) Self-centeredness and no sense of moral obligation: Some people may be so self-absorbed that they are unaware of the pain they are causing others.
(3) History of a dysfunctional upbringing: Having experienced rejection or abuse in one’s family may lead an individual to feel justified in “getting even” with the rest of the world.
If you do have a difficult family member and your attempts to compromise, placate or have civil discourse only make things worse, what can you do? All you want is to keep peace in the family.
First, what not to do. As a rule, the following attitudes or behaviors, when dealing with an extremely troublesome individual, do not work:
Being “nice” to the person. This may be perceived as weakness, and often invites further mistreatment.
Remaining silent. This can encourage escalation of abusive language.
“Active listening.” Giving empathic attention to a difficult person can lead to further domination by the individual.
Here are some survival techniques:
(1) Using Assertive body language. A standing position, with ruler-straight posture, exudes authority, while a slump suggests submissiveness.
(2) Responding to behavior. Rather than reacting to words,
react to behavior. Example: “Please come back when we can have a civil discussion,” is more effective than, “I never did that.”
(3) Responding with humor. Some of us are better at delivering verbal quips than others, but often a clever one-liner can thwart a counterproductive interaction.
Example: A response like, “Oh, that’s highly classified information,” might produce the desired result.
(4) Using “you” rather than the I. This places the responsibility on the troublesome individual. Example: “Please don’t contradict me,” might be more effective than, “I feel hurt when you contradict me,” because it puts the onus on the offensive individual.
A word of caution: It’s a good idea to assess the situation before reacting to a verbally abusive person. When our gut tells us we may be treading on dangerous ground, it’s best to avoid an antagonistic encounter. Safety is always the first priority.
The references below can help in dealing with — or freeing ourselves from — mistreatment by an abusive individual.
Take The Bully By The Horns: Stop Unethical, Uncooperative Or Unpleasant People From Running And Ruining Your Life By Sam Horn St. Martin’s Press, New York (2002).
Tongue Fu! How To Deflect, Disarm And Defuse Any Verbal Conflict.
New York By Sam Horn St. Martin’s Press, New York (1996).
Louise Whiteside, M.Ed, M.S.W., has conducted workshops on communication, anger management and interpersonal skills.