How to Handle Difficult People

Frederick Dodson

Frederick Dodson

In a recent Webinar, someone asked me “How to handle difficult people”. I gave the short answer, which is to “give attention to their upsides, and no attention to their downsides”. Subconsciously, attention is taken as a reward, so that’s an effective universal principle you can apply to anyone. It’s a good short answer. This article is the long answer.

So, a “Difficult person” shows up or speaks. You and others are “triggered” or it occupies your attention for hours. Isn’t that how it goes? And doesn’t that apply to any variation of “difficult person” –  that choleric grandparent, the perpetually irate teenager, the creepy Boss or the negative colleague. We experience “difficult people” as difficult, because they occupy our attention in a negative way. That’s why I say “don’t give their negativity any attention”. When something or someone “upsets” us, what we really mean is that we keep replaying what was said or done in our minds, combined with negative emotion. We give a thing we don’t like, great attention, seriousness and importance. That’s what “being upset” really means.

People react to “difficult people” in different ways. Sometimes we try to appease the person. Sometimes that works, temporarily. We say “oh sorry, so sorry, it wont happen again. You are absolutely right“. But as you all know from life experience, that really only works temporarily. It can be used if you never see that person again. It also works if you really are in the wrong. But that’s not appeasement, it’s confession. Appeasement is the fake attempt to sooth a “difficult person”, well knowing that person too easily gets angry and will get angry again.

Some people don’t appease, they confront and criticize head-on. That certainly feels stronger than appeasement, but it isn’t that much better. It will lead to loud arguments and fights that nobody actually benefits from. It depletes more energy in all involved. Confronting someone is better than fear, but its still emotionally jarring. And you’ll have to repeat it over and over because it doesn’t solve the problem.

Yet others try to ignore the “difficult person”. That might work better than appeasement and confrontation, but it doesn’t make the difficult person go away. And sooner or later the difficult person might notice and target you.

Ignoring a person is not the same thing as “not giving their negative side any attention”. You give the persons good side attention, you emphasize that persons strengths. That’s not ignoring its supporting. And at the same time, you don’t react to the persons negative or difficult side.

Most people who claim to be “ignoring” someone, actually have their full attention on that person all the time! They pretend to “ignore” but it troubles them day in, day out.

Appeasement, being Confrontational and Ignoring are no permanent solutions.

Truly the very first step to a permanent solution is not found in changing “the other”, it’s found in your own state. At some level, every human being knows this.

Just to be clear: I am referring here to the 98% of “difficult people”, not the 2% of people who are outright ill-intended. Most “difficult people” are not ill-intended. They merely need some love and maybe some Coaching. Everything said here, applies to these 98%. If you are dealing with one of the 2% of people who are sociopath, I recommend you remove yourself from them completely. None of these methods will work on people who want to do harm. How do you know you are dealing with such a person? They are unresponsive to love.

The heart of the matter, when dealing with difficult people, is to maintain your state. That’s the same state you had, before the “difficult person” showed up or spoke. If you can maintain your state, all else becomes easier. Getting upset, preoccupied, avoiding, ignoring, confronting, appeasing…ALL of that is because you did not maintain your normal state. You maintaining your state means that this person or their behavior do not trigger or control you. You can be yourself, be natural, with no need to either suppress or express, manipulate, attempt, resist, desire, etc. Nothing has changed if “difficult person” shows up.

You know how you feel when a neutral person shows up? That’s right, you don’t feel any different. It’s a matter of practice to feel the same way about the “difficult person”. From that natural, effortless space you could choose to talk or not talk, advise or not advise, joke or not joke, retreat or stay. Because you feel at ease, either leaving or staying are fine. 

Yes, this is easier said than done. I just wanted to clarify why that should be your aim.

Now you might think that all this implies that you should do breathing or relaxing exercises in the presence of the person. But that’s not quite what I mean. Any sort of “exercise” you do because of the person, is yet another layer of unnatural reaction. Do you do breathing exercises when a neutral or friendly person is around? No? Then don’t do it for the difficult person either. Instead, you might at first notice just how many reactions you have to that person. There’s a whole circus going on within: Should I look at him or look away? Talk to him or not? Does he notice me or not? Can I change him or not? Does he want to change or not? All of that is irrelevant. It’s just the mind resisting and reacting to what is labeled “a difficult person”.

If only you could see everyone from the heart, you’d see that the “difficult person” is merely struggling. And if you saw that, a ray of love would flow from your field to his/hers and it would contribute to the lightening of the persons mood.

Did I just imply that you could radiate some peculiar energy in another persons direction and it would change their state?

I didn’t only imply it, I said it. You can improve peoples state by your own radiance. If you find yourself unable to shift the state of the “difficult person” its only because you need to grow in energy.

It can’t be done when your energy is depleted. You realize that most couples have fights when they are both tired. Most spousal arguments happen in the evening. When energy is depleted, it’s best to go rest (or to improve your fitness). Just that, will save you a lot of trouble with people.

If, for some reason, you did not achieve maintaining your state with a difficult person, instead of giving up on it, examine the situation. Examine how you reacted and envision how you’d like to be next time that “difficult person” shows up. Also envision how you’d like that “difficult person” to be. Keep on practicing until you no longer have to escape that type of person and can be yourself in their presence. It may take some time, but it’s greatly rewarding in many different ways you will discover. There is no merit in always escaping, because a difficult person can be found anywhere. Perhaps there is a reason this person is in your surroundings. Perhaps it’s for you to overcome a barrier within yourself, to transcend that which withholds love.



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