How to Deal with Difficult People Without Blowing a Gasket

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Whether it’s an incompetent co-worker, a client with an anger management problem, a judgmental neighbor or an interfering relative, we’ve all had to deal with difficult people in our lives. For better or worse, part of belonging to a civilized society means that we’re conditioned to politeness, etiquette, traditions, or just plain rules. Rules that mean we don’t raise our voices in anger, or tell people what we really think of them, because such things just aren’t done.

This author wouldn’t advise changing those rules – manners make things more pleasant, even if they’re not sincere – but there can be ways to work within and around those rules of etiquette to get through to people who have trouble with social interactions.

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First and Foremost – Take a Step Back

No matter how frustrating this person can be, keep calm and don’t let your emotions take over, because as soon as you start to yell back, you’ve lost. You can always indulge your frustrations later (on the squash court, or when kneading dough, or when playing the drums) – but for now, they’ll just get in the way.

When we’re frustrated or impatient, our judgment is impaired and we may say or do things we regret. Tamp all that negativity down in yourself as much as you can, and try to be rational and aloof. If it helps, think of yourself as the better person taking the high road – once your opponent is downgraded from an enemy to an irritant, it becomes easier to disengage your emotions.

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Next, Stick to the High Road

In an argument, trading insults or bringing past grievances back to light just takes away from whatever the real issue is. Try to avoid directly negative personal commentary – “You always get it wrong” — and stick to neutral phrasing — “This has been a problem before; let’s try to think of a way to avoid it in future”. It may sound too touchy-feely or new-agey, but these strategies work. When the other person feels defensive, he or she will be inclined to lash out, but if you can remove the sting from your argument, you’ll have come a lot closer to an agreement.

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Be Clear in What You Want, and Secure in Who You Are

Easier said than done, right? Of course it is. But if you can project a quality of strength and surety, then you leave the other person with fewer options to prey on. If you appear hapless or indecisive, then the other person, consciously or subconsciously, will feel that he or she can take advantage.

Sometimes, dealing with difficult people doesn’t take the form of an argument – the difficulty can be in the people themselves. Maybe they have attitudes or opinions that you dislike, maybe they are too loud, or too quiet, or have bad breath. In cases like these, your strategy is not about winning a battle but about saving face, for both of you. You can remove yourself from the situation politely without offending the other person by using some of the etiquette conventions that were built into the system for just this purpose. Try phrases like “Will you excuse me, I’ve got to go over there for a moment…” or “I’m so sorry to interrupt, I’m in a bit of a hurry, why don’t you email me about that?” or “Haha, we may have to agree to disagree on that. Oh look, is that a Kardashian over there?”

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Have a Game Plan

You may not be able to avoid the difficult people in your life, but you should at least be able to anticipate them. Plan your strategy in advance, and be prepared to implement it if needed. (While you do, think about how your last interaction went, to see if maybe you were being difficult as well – you may be making the situation worse without even realizing. Take a moment to think – which person was the more aggressive, the more negative, the more frustrated, the more friendly, the more open?)

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Avoid, Avoid, Avoid

Sometimes, nothing can be done. A person can be so set in their ways that nothing you do or say, or the way that you do or say it, will affect the way they treat you. That’s not fun, but ultimately, it’s not all on you – after all, it takes two to tango. So what can you do? Take another route across the dance floor. Switch partners, boogie your way solo, or just head to the bar for a drink and avoid the dance floor altogether.