30 Foolproof Ways to Deal with Difficult People
In an ideal world, everyone would be as sweet, fun and chill as your best friend since fifth grade. In reality, your life is full of all sorts of difficult personalities, from the toxic co-worker who keeps eating your lunch to your narcissistic mother-in-law who thinks her grandkids are her personal property. Here are 30 (healthy) ways to deal with every single one of them.
1. Hide their alerts on your phone. Unless the difficult person is your boss or a close family member, there’s no harm in clicking the “mute alerts” button to keep frantic texts and “crisis” calls from interrupting your day. If the salad bar ran out of olives and your sister-in-law is having a panic attack, there’s no reason it should interrupt your work meeting.
2. Take a deep breath. When you’re in the middle of a battle zone, you might find yourself getting tense and internalizing the stressful situation. Even a few seconds of deep breathing can help calm your fight or flight response. Harvard Medical School suggests escaping to a quiet room (hey, the bathroom will work in a pinch), then breathing in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise. Then, breathe slowly out of your mouth. Repeat for a minute, then calmly return to the conversation.
3. Don’t expect them to change. Sure, it would be fabulous if your train-wreck friend from high school suddenly realized she’d been acting selfish and disrespectful for the last ten years. But chances are, unless they have a serious epiphany or get into some intense therapy, things will remain exactly the same. Expect her to be an hour late—and instead of tapping your toes and looking at your watch, take your sweet time getting there and bring a great book to get lost in.
4. Try the grey rock method. This one’s especially good for narcissists and other toxic types. In a nutshell, you do your best to act as boring, uninteresting and unengaged as possible (even going so far as wearing drab clothes). Eventually, they’ll get disinterested and move on.
5. Listen. Whether or not you’re actually listening is up to you. But often, difficult people just want someone to complain to, not an actual solution.
6. Schedule short visits. In six months, your curmudgeonly Great Aunt Mildred won’t remember if you spent the whole day with her, or just had a 45-minute lunch at her house. Stay present while you’re with her, but protect the rest of your time as much as possible.
7. Don’t match their intensity level. When a difficult person raises his voice, it can be tempting to yell right back at them…and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a screaming match. Instead, maintain your composure and do your best not to react.
8. Take a step backward. Difficult people love to make their problems your problems, and make you try to feel responsible. “Clearly define and remind yourself what is your concern and what is actually the toxic person’s concern, regardless of what they say to you,” suggests clinical psychologist Damon Ashworth.
9. Check in with yourself. Every so often (set an alarm if you need to), take a few moments to step away from the toxic environment and check in. How are you feeling? Do you need to take a deep breath? Is there anything else you could be doing to keep a healthy distance between you and the difficult person? Even a few seconds in your own head can help.
10. Keep the focus on solutions. Your mother-in-law’s pipes froze, her roof is covered with ice and she needs her whole driveway shoveled. She’s capable of doing it herself, but she’d rather spend the rest of the day complaining to you about it. Instead, stick to the positive (without actually solving any of the problems for her)—give her the number for a plumber, get her shovel out of the garage for her and empower her to fix the issue on her own.
11. Have a stock answer for unsolicited advice. Your toxic friend thinks you should be raising your child vegan, and she brings it up incessantly every time you’re together. Instead of letting the conversation linger on, say, “you may be right,” and leave it at that. Works like a charm.
12. Reward yourself with self-care. You know what instantly relieves the stress of hanging out with a toxic person all day? An hour-long massage. Treat yourself.
13. Vent to someone you trust. After spending an extended period of time dealing with a difficult person, it can sometimes be tough to get back to reality. Was it really rude and inappropriate of your sister to ask to borrow your car for two weeks, or are you just being overly sensitive? Confide in someone impartial (and trustworthy) to help set things straight.
14. Stick with neutral topics and small talk. It’s sad that you can’t tell your cousin all about the weekend you spent wedding dress shopping, but you know she’s going to laugh when you say you picked out a mermaid gown and spend the next 20 minutes making fun of it. “Don’t say anything that will give them the opportunity to dump their negative opinions and judgements on you,” advises Gill Hasson, author of How to Deal with Difficult People. So when she asks you what you did this weekend, talk about something you watched on TV, or how cold the weather was. Boring, but it works.
15. Don’t reveal anything too personal. In a healthy relationship, it might be hilarious to reveal that time you got too drunk in college and ended up dancing on the bar in your bra. In a toxic relationship, however, your S.O. might use this information against you, telling your work colleagues, parents and friends in an attempt to embarrass you. Keep your cards close to your chest (and if you’re dating this jerk, get out of the relationship, stat).
16. Focus on something you both enjoy. In general, it’s much safer to spend the entire lunch talking about how much the two of you love Star Wars. Stick with something you know you can talk about without getting into an argument.
17. Limit your engagement over email and social media. If your difficult person is a fan of sending you 25 emails at 3 a.m., don’t feel obligated to answer them today. Or this week. Break the pattern of jumping when they ask you to jump. The less they expect from you, the better.
18. Get to the root of the behavior. Your brother’s passive-aggressive behavior towards you might not have anything to do with how you’re actually acting in the moment, and everything to do with that time your parents let you go to a birthday party without him when you were six. Dig deeper and you might realize the root cause has absolutely nothing to do with you.
19. Ignore them. Remember, you aren’t on their timetable, and if a difficult person wants something from you, they’re going to have to wait until it’s convenient for you. If this means straight-up ignoring their seven missed calls, 18 text messages and 25 emails, so be it.
20. Dodge the “emotional tornadoes.” Elizabeth B. Brown, author of Living Successfully with Screwed-Up People, coined the term “emotional tornadoes,” which is a fabulous metaphor for how it feels when problems are abruptly hurled at you by a difficult person. The tendency, for many people, is to get wrapped up in the difficult person’s issues. Instead, do your best to listen without comment and then move on.
21. Pick your battles. OK, you’ve known your uncle for 37 years. You know he’s going to try to get you to fight with him about politics during Thanksgiving. Armed with this information, it’s easier to disengage. Practice the “you may be right” motto above until the pumpkin pie is served and you get to go home.
22. Don’t agree to anything. You pride yourself in being positive, flexible and accommodating, but a toxic person will take advantage of your good will. Before you get manipulated into doing a dozen things for the difficult person that don’t benefit you at all, practice saying, “I have to think about it” before you agree to anything. This gives you the space and time to decide if you really want to help your cousin with her clothing business, or if it’s healthier for you to step away.
23. View the world through their eyes (just for a second). When you find yourself getting frustrated having to deal with a toxic person, take a step back and think about what life must be like for them. If you find this person difficult, chances are lots of other people do, too. Have sympathy that your friend lacks this self-awareness, and feel grateful that you’re not in the same boat.
24. Protect your joy. When a difficult person sees you happy, they might do everything they can to derail it. If your sister-in-law is jealous of your new house, she might subtly point out everything that’s wrong with it in an attempt to make you feel bad. Luckily, according to Brown, happiness is personal and worthy of protection. “If our happiness and sanity is based on the expectation of them changing, we’ve handed them the reins in our lives.” When you’re happy, there’s nothing she—or anyone else—should be able to do to shake it.
25. Don’t say you’re sorry. Or at least watch how many times you’re saying it. Difficult people may try to blame you for things that aren’t your fault (or if they are your fault, they might berate you until you feel absolutely terrible, even if they aren’t really that big of a deal). Avoid the trap of remedying this by saying “I’m sorry” a bunch of times, Brown advises. More often than not, there’s nothing for you to apologize for.
26. Don’t make their stress your stress. Guys, this one’s important. When your friend is complaining that nothing in her life is working out, and she hates her job and her life is miserable (like she does every time you see her for brunch), don’t try to solve her problems for her, suggests Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkman, authors of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand. A better solution? “Have compassion for the pitiful Whiners whose lives seem beyond their control.” It’s the only thing you really have control over in this situation, after all.
27. Watch your body language. If you’re spending an extended period of time with a toxic person, check in periodically and observe your body. Are your hands in fists? Is your neck tense? Are you taking deep breaths? Sit in a neutral position, take a deep breath out to expel the stress from your body and try to stay as calm as possible throughout the interaction.
28. Trust your instincts. If your dramatic aunt tells you that your cousin is livid at you for not going to her wedding, it’s possible she’s telling the truth. However, it’s probable that your aunt is stirring up trouble, like she frequently does, and there’s really no hard feelings coming from your cousin. Instead of getting wrapped up in your aunt’s story, take a step back and remember her track record with these types of conflicts.
29. Give yourself a pat on the back. Phew. You did it. You got through a tricky interaction with a difficult person. Give yourself credit for getting through it, suggests psychologist Barbara Markway. "It takes a lot of energy not to act like a jerk when someone else is behaving badly," she says. "Don’t skip this step!"
30. If all else fails, cut them out of your life. Sometimes, a toxic person affects your life so much, your only choice is to remove them from your life completely. Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself first, and if the difficult person can’t fit into that equation, a healthy relationship will never be possible. The sooner you let them go, the sooner you can focus on learning, growing and discovering healthier relationships—and hopefully, your difficult friend will be able to move on, too.