We all have difficult people in our lives. You know, the uncle who argues every point, the boss who constantly criticizes your work, the mother who plays the martyr, or the neighbor who is looking for trouble.
Difficult people aren’t born that way, but become difficult through childhood attachment problems, poor choices, blaming others, and having negative experiences related to loss and trauma.
Difficult people escalate conflict and create drama. Excessive anger is often related to disappointment and issues of emotional neglect. Anger is used to keep people away and control others. Conflict is viewed as a personal assault and emotions are not managed.
So if you have a difficult person in your life, you are probably not going to change them. Rather you need to know how to best respond. Here are a few suggestions from my book, We Need to Talk: How To Successfully Navigate Conflict:
1. Don’t say to the person, “You are so difficult!” This is tempting, but it will only escalate the problem. Instead listen, be empathetic and try to lower their defenses by remaining calm.
2. Don’t argue and try to prove you are right. This only escalates a difficult person and makes the matter worse.
3. Assess your safety. If the other person is beginning to get out of control, drop the issue and take a time out or leave the situation.
4. Stick with the issue no matter what the other person does to try and engage you in a fight or blame you. Focus on the issue, not the drama. Just the facts!
5. Choose your battles. Some issues just aren’t worth fighting over.
6. Don’t bring in other people to be on your side. This only escalates a difficult person. Instead, stick to the issue that needs to be addressed.
7. Keep conflicts from escalating. If the tension grows, yelling or name calling starts, take a time out and include yourself in the need to stay calm. For example, say, “ We seem to be getting heated. Let’s take a few moments and both calm down.
8. Have conflict rules—no blaming, yelling, name-calling, lying, etc. Stop when these rules are violated.
None of this is easy to do when a conflict heats up or becomes tense, but think about the challenging words of Jesus to love our neighbor. Our neighbor includes difficult people.
Often it helps to remember the Serenity prayer when it comes to dealing with a difficult person:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
It is the love of Christ that empowers us to take the road less traveled and to love those who are difficult to love.