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How to Deal with a Difficult Person

Who hasn’t been thrown off-balance by a difficult person? The perpetrator could be virtually anyone — a spouse, an in-law, other relative, friend, coworker, or boss.

Sometimes it’s you or (gasp!) me.

Which reminds me of what Rabbi Joseph Richards said: “People are annoying. So find the person who annoys you the least and marry that one!”

Perhaps such reframing of “difficult” to “normal” can help us relax a bit when it comes to thinking about constructive responses to people by whom we feel besieged.

After leading a Dealing with a Difficult Person workshop for corporate employees, I realized that similar communications skills that enrich marriage and other personal relationships, when applied in the workplace will enhance teamwork and effectiveness.

To move from simply feeling annoyed by a difficult person to responding constructively, it helps to understand the likely underlying reasons for the troublesome behavior. Here’s how to do this, using guilt-trippers, scorekeepers, and blamers as examples of difficult behaviors:

Guilt-tripper: Instead of expressing their wants and feelings directly, they say things to make others feel guilty.

Example: “Go ahead and watch TV while I do the dishes and then put the kids to bed. I feel a migraine coming on but I’ll manage. And I still have to get up early tomorrow to finish that project at work.” (sigh)

Underlying Reason: Guilt-trippers lack self-esteem. Consequently, they don’t feel worthy of asking directly for what they want. They may act like a martyr, hoping the other person will get the hint. When that doesn’t happen they become resentful or depressed.

Solution: Encourage guilt-trippers to express themselves clearly. Ask your partner, “Do you want me to help more?” Please say specifically what you want. You can ask me for anything. I might not give you the moon, but if you ask me to do a simple chore, I’d probably say ‘fine.’”

Scorekeeper: Says nothing when upset but keeps track of each incident and eventually lets it all out at once. Example: “I was expecting you to call an hour ago to say you’d be late for dinner. I should have known you wouldn’t call because you didn’t let me know when you were over an hour late last Tuesday and three other times last month. And that time two years ago…”

Underlying Reason: Scorekeepers feel uncomfortable about making waves by complaining. Eventually, like a volcano, pressure accumulates and they spew out what’s been building up.

Solution: Apologize for your part in causing discomfort. Say you prefer to hear what’s bothering the person each time rather than have resentments accumulate.

Blamer: These people accuse others of being inadequate, using you-statements and name-calling, such as “You’re a jerk,” “a slob,” or “stupid.”

Underlying Reason: Blamers lack self-esteem and feel unsafe expressing themselves with I-statements, such as “I’m disappointed (or I feel disrespected or frustrated)” by your lateness.” They’re more likely to say, “You’re always late,” or “You’re rude.” An insecure person who feels inferior to his partner, fearing abandonment, might unconsciously resort to blaming or putting down the other, hoping to erode the latter’s self-esteem to the point that she or he won’t think they can find a better mate.

Solution: Compose yourself with a couple of deep breaths, so you won’t respond impulsively. Try to be objective. Ask yourself, “Am I at fault?” Either way, respond calmly and respectfully: “Yes, I often do run late and I hear this bothers you. It’s my problem of trying to do just one more thing before I leave. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”

If you realize you’re being falsely accused, state your disagreement calmly. If you’re being unjustly accused of lying, for example, say, “I’m actually careful to be truthful.” You can also politely ask the person to give an example of what he or she is accusing you.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Yet living with difficult behaviors can be toxic.

These are three kinds of difficult behaviors. If you’re on the receiving end of any of them, use common sense. If you can muster up compassion for someone who is being difficult, the person will sense this and feel less of a need to project his or her insecurities on you. You can also become part of the solution by using positive communication techniques, as illustrated step by step in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love[1], and you may be happily surprised by the results.

In any case, do not trap yourself into staying around toxic behavior. If it continues despite your efforts to defuse it, be willing to walk away, at least momentarily.

Remember: We cannot change another person’s behavior; we can only change our own.

[1] Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, includes seven key communication skills for keeping a relationship flourishing while dating and after marrying.

Angry boss photo available from Shutterstock

How to Deal with a Difficult Person


Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), has a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California. She offers and workshops for couples and singles, and continuing education classes for therapists at NASW conferences and online. She has taught also at the UCSF School of Medicine, UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University. A former executive director of a family service agency, she earlier held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry.


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APA Reference
Berger, M. (2018). How to Deal with a Difficult Person. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-a-difficult-person/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.