Life Hacks to Handle Difficult People

Publishers Note: This is part one of a two-part column. Join us next issue for the conclusion.

I get to spend most of my time with clients coming up with “life hacks,” those simple and deliciously clever ways to deal with life’s frustrations. And without a doubt, difficult people are at the top of the list.

Difficult people are confounding, exasperating, maddening. Whether it’s your kid, your nemesis at work, a difficult relative or friend, or even your (present or future) ex, what is it about difficult people that makes them so difficult?

It’s not just that they’re so different from you. You probably like variety in other areas of your life. It’s actually hardwired into our brains to appreciate and seek out novelty — a rush of dopamine accompanies fresh experiences of any kind, brain research reveals.

Yet, in spite of knowing that difficult people think and operate very differently from you — maybe radically so — why do you persist in plowing ahead with approaches that would work with someone like you… but not them?

Let’s say, between you and the other person, you’re the more analytical and logical one, whereas the other person is more in touch with feelings and goes with their gut. Why would you try to influence an “intuitive” or a “feeler” with an approach that appeals to a “thinker?”

Now let’s reverse the scenario. It’s a different topic and this time you’re the more emotional one and the “difficult” person is being very cerebral. Why would you use an emotional appeal with someone that isn’t into their feelings — or yours?

“I’m OK, You’re Not OK!”

Do any of these common conflictual scenarios resonate with you?

  • You are very responsible and the other person is unreliable.
  • You keep opening up with a person who isn’t transparent in return.
  • You’re being straightforward and direct with a person who avoids, deflects, and sneaks around behind your back.
  • You think it’s important to be polite and considerate, and the other person has no problem being nasty or volatile and causing a scene.
  • You’re concerned about your “brand,” and the other person doesn’t care what other people think.
  • You naturally fall into the role of peacemaker, and the other person takes pride in being a fighter.
  • You’re naturally accommodating, and the other person likes to be in charge — a lot.
  • You enjoy discussion and are receptive to an exchange of ideas. The other person has strong opinions and expresses no interest in or regard for yours.

The reality is that in some situations, you’ll be on one side of the equation and other times you’re occupying the exact opposite position. However, I’ll bet that you identify with one of the above positions more often than its opposite.

Back to our dilemma. Why keep investing in tactics that would appeal to you… but not them? I work with people who have plenty of smarts, so when someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense, I start looking for missing information. With that piece of the puzzle in place, things can rapidly begin to shift out of that awful stuck place.

I’m Not Arguing. I’m Just Explaining Why I’m Right.

You know why it’s so hard to get inside that difficult person’s head, wrap your mind around their worldview, and come up with something to which they might respond positively?

Because it feels so… wrong.

It’s not just that difficult people are different from you. It’s that they’re somehow wrong.

They don’t think like me… but they should

So why should I have to be the one to adjust how I deal with them?
If I’m going to meet them where they are, I have to go to the dark side, right?

The scary part is that before you know it, difficult people start to seem not quite human and therefore, undeserving of being treated with basic human decency. Here’s how the progression works:

So that’s our human condition. I don’t know if it’s possible to completely transcend our ego-centric way of thinking and stand outside our own personal silos for any extended period of time. I don’t know if it’s even necessary. I’ve set a lesser, more realistic goal. I just want to be as effective with other people as I possibly can, because that makes my life’s work better. I’m happier when I can do that. What will it take?

You Can Be Right and Happy.

How can we cultivate our ability to stand in someone else’s shoes while firmly planted in our own? Isn’t that doing two opposite things at the same time? Isn’t that impossible?

It’s not impossible. In fact, we’re doing it all the time — just to be able to stand and walk requires a complex integration of opposite actions in the body. All we’re doing is applying that concept to create psychological balance (aka peace of mind).

Impossible? No. Challenging? Yes. Developing your ability and skill at entering someone else’s world so you can deal effectively with them — without becoming like them— is incredibly powerful and can produce extraordinary results. Not only will you will handle difficult people better, you’ll make your already good relationships even better.

Fortunately, there are small, doable ways you can get started right away. We’ll discuss those in our next column, in the next issue of MD-Update. In the meantime, I invite you to do some self-examination and think of the difficult people in your life and how you interact with them.