Odds are there’s at least one difficult person in your life — someone who can make your blood boil and your anxiety flame up. While it may be possible to avoid many of these annoying folks, a certain number are here to stay, a study published in the American Sociological Review finds.
Usually the ones we’re stuck with are close family relatives or coworkers, researchers determined. Sometimes it's a demanding and rude boss, sometimes a manipulative and ungrateful relative. If you're really unlucky, you've got one or more from both categories.
One finding from the report should make us all feel a little less alone in our suffering: Study volunteers reported that about 15 percent of the people they knew fell into the “difficult” category.
Unless we want to cut of family ties or find a new job, that means we need to find a way to cope. It should be a priority because of the effect difficult people can have on us, says Jodi De Luca, a clinical psychologist at Erie Colorado Counseling.
“Dealing with difficult people can significantly impact one’s emotional, psychological and overall well-being,” De Luca says. “For many, interactions with difficult people can be a very threatening and stressful experience. From a psychological perspective, the fear of emotional loss of control, judgment, and social embarrassment are terrifying to say the least.”
Here are nine things to keep in mind:
1. Recognize you have no control over the person
The first step is to realize the only person we have control of is ourselves, says Thomas Merrill, a psychologist in private practice in Sequim, Washington, and author of “Settle for More.” “I am under my control completely, but I can’t control the other person” Merrill adds. “I need to back up for a moment and see how I might respond differently.”
2. Identify what sets you off
“In particular, pay special attention to the behaviors, expressions and words used by the difficult person that trigger an emotional response in you, such as anger, resentment, fear or frustration,” De Luca says. “Once you identify these triggers, you have a better chance of catching yourself and regulating your emotions.”
3. Figure out a different way to respond
If you want to change the dynamic you have with the difficult person, you may need to change how you respond to them, Merrill says, adding that you also might want to rehearse and practice responses that will defuse emotions rather than intensify them.
4. Whenever possible, steer clear of the difficult person
“Accept what you cannot change or control,” De Luca says. “If possible, minimize your interaction with difficult people and situations.”
5. Know when to walk away.
“If things are heating up, politely ask to revisit the conversation at a later time,” De Luca suggests.
6. Reach out to others for help
“Identify family, friends or co-workers who have a good relationship with the difficult person,” De Luca says. “Whenever possible, have them interact with the difficult person as they may offer a better outcome.”
7. Ask questions that will elicit a sense of control for the difficult person
For example, De Luca says, “you might ask, ‘What would make things better?’ or ‘What options would you propose?’”
8. Set boundaries
You need to be able to set limits in personal relationships, Merrill says. If that’s not acceptable to the person you’re involved with, “the relationship may not be worth continuing,” he says.
9. In work environments, make sure you have witnesses and document bad behavior
“If possible, in workplace environments, have a third party present when dealing with difficult individuals,” De Luca says. “Document not only behavior, but what the individual states, verbatim. And consider engaging the assistance of human resources, supervisors and managers.”