4 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People, According to a Therapist

Young man in city

Everyone knows difficult people — whether at work, at home, maybe even in your friend group. While people can be difficult for a variety of reasons, most people we’d identify as “difficult” share something in common: they are hard to interact with. Perhaps they are fixated on being right, always pointing out others’ flaws. They may make social situations tense by being quick to criticize or make fun of others, whether openly or passive-aggressively. They may explode when they are challenged, or have volatile mood swings. Often, others feel like they have to walk on eggshells around them.

Particularly for those who are sensitive, dealing with difficult people can be extremely stressful. The burden can grow to the point that it severely impacts overall quality of life. But there are ways to cope with these people so you can feel more in control of your interactions. It is essential to have a game plan for coping with people who trigger you, and it can include many of these points.

Don’t Share Things You Feel Insecure About

This is harder with difficult family members than with difficult coworkers, but it is doable. Before sharing any private thoughts or intimate feelings with a challenging person, think about how you’ll feel if they minimize or dismiss your concerns.

Instead, what if you stuck to light topics of conversation? Discuss TV shows, the book you’re reading, straightforward things at work.Many people find this strategy helpful, as it shifts inevitable negativity away from topics that are sensitive or personal.

Deflect the Conversation Away from Yourself

Many difficult people are narcissists, and enjoy nothing more than regaling you, and whoever else will listen, with an endless stream of anecdotes and stories about their own trials and tribulations. If you find that getting along with a difficult person is necessary in your life — because they are your boss or your friend’s partner, for instance — try focusing the conversation on them, rather than opening up. This way, you can avoid any confrontation, but still avoid opening yourself up to their criticisms, mood swings, or any other difficult behaviors.

Flex Your Empathy Muscles

Most difficult people are the way they are because of strenuous circumstances in their upbringing or later lives. Empathy is crucial when you’re interacting with a difficult person who has a significant impact on your life, like a relative. You don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about how your coworker may have been treated as a child (although it would still help your perspective taking ability). With a close family member, however, this type of larger perspective may make the difference between bitterly resenting someone and being able to tolerate them.

Make Self-Care a First Priority

If you know you’re going to be around your hypercritical father-in-law, take some time for yourself before and after the interaction. You may even plan to reward yourself if you’re able to take the higher ground with him. An hour of listening to him spout nonsense about politics could mean you treat yourself to a massage later in the week. Take some deep breaths, drink your favorite beverage, go to the gym. Whatever gives you peace of mind, make sure to set aside time for it.

Don’t Take Things Personally

This is the most important (and the hardest) aspect of dealing with difficult people. It is integral to recognize that difficult people are difficult by nature, and with everyone. This doesn’t have to do with you.

Yes, some individuals can hide the difficult parts of their personalities with those they don’t interact with often, but immediate family tends to bear the brunt of difficult people’s burdensome behavior. It can be transformative to realize that a difficult person is that way because of their own history and personality, and that your behavior plays a much smaller role in how they respond to you than you might think.

If you struggle with a difficult person in your daily life, keep these techniques in mind and you will likely be less anxious in their presence. Of course, working with a therapist on tactics for your unique situation may also be very useful. You may not be able to control anyone else’s behavior, but you can control how you respond to them.

Published by

Dr. Samantha Rodman

Clinical Psychologist