6 Steps to Increase Coping Skills Around a Difficult Person

For one reason or another, many of us have a difficult person in our lives that we want to keep. They could be a family member or a friend or colleague who we value despite their difficult personalities. We may care about someone who is suffering with a mental illness who deserves compassion.

Holding our breath and hoping they will change is not usually a good idea. It just gives us ulcers, headaches and poor quality sleep. When we are passive or feel overly anxious, it is because we do not realize that there is something we can do to improve those difficult relationships. With a little strategy, we can drastically change things around.

Here are 6 steps to consider to improve our personal coping skills. We will increase self-esteem and sense of effectiveness as we begin to speak up for ourselves. If you have many difficult people in your life, start with one that you consider less of a threat and whom you know values your relationship.

This does not excuse bad behavior; it merely puts you in the driver’s seat while increasing your own coping abilities and personal resiliency.

1. Assess our role in the situation

  • Develop insight into our own behavior during the interaction. Some valuable questions to ponder are:
  • Is this person difficult with everyone? Under the same circumstances with others, does this person act differently? Is my behavior the trigger?
  • Could I be overreacting to this situation? Am I the only one who seems to feel this way?
  • Have I been using open and direct communication to say what I need or am I running away? (Chronically running away makes things worse.)

2. Stop wishing they were different

  • Magical thinking does not change anything. There’s a quote I heard somewhere “Blaming isn’t changing”.
  • We wouldn’t expect our life partner to go dance the tango if they are in a wheelchair. We may need to change our perception of the difficult person’s capabilities if our expectations cannot be met.

3. Create some emotional distance between you and the difficult behavior

  • When someone is a difficult person with everyone, do not take it personally.
  • Practice loving detachment. That is where we our relationship is not based on the behavior but on the value of the person.(Think about when your child does something bad: they are not a bad person; it is the behavior that is bad.)
  • If possible, create a physical distance or barrier. (Move your desk to face a different direction, close the door, put a plant between you…)

4. Before you implement your strategy:

  • Without judgment or emotion, learn to name (identify and define) the actions and behaviors of the person. Practice identifying them in your mind.
  • Preparing what you are going to say is critical. Since difficult people repeat the same behaviors, you can plan ahead what you will say the next time it happens.
  • Timing is important. After talking to them privately with no results; then you need to catch them in the act and point out what they are “doing”. What is the action you find upsetting. If they are in the middle of it, it is harder to deny. (Although not impossible for people who are clearly in denial.)

5. Interrupt the interaction while it is happening

  • Be prepared to identify and describe the behaviors the person is doing right in the moment.
  • Examples:

When you yell loudly like this, I am too upset to help you get what you want.

Attacking my character is not fair. I expect civility.

6. Monitor the results and modify your behavior

  • Persistence is so important when dealing with a difficult person. When a new boundary is implemented, they need to know the certainty of this new rule before they will stop testing it. So be persistent.
  • Review the cost versus the benefit of having your desired results. For example, maybe the cost is having someone challenge your new “rule of civility” for a couple of months and you have to remind them. Conversely, the benefit is that your self-esteem will go up, your ulcers will go away and you will have a new history of dealing effectively with with other difficult people who may cross your path.
  • Basically, once your “WHY” is large enough, you will be able to persist and alter your behavior.

Bonus consideration:

When first going out of our comfort zone and developing these new skills, having the right role models around us, mentors and support go a long way in shortening the learning curve on how to deal with difficult people.

Remember that life is about experimentation. Hiding from the difficult people in our lives only serve to keep us apart. Then we are not giving them the data they need to be in relationship with us.


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