9 Tips For Dealing With Difficult People

Blamers, complainers, and bullies, oh my! The Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips for dealing with difficult people, and 5 more for taking care of yourself after a close encounter with the difficult kind. Plus: does bedwetting predict psychopathy? Find out in our new Savvy Listener Mail segment!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 1, 2014
Episode #030

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Direct feedback can also work for passive-aggressives who superficially agree to do something, then show up late or do their job badly to retaliate. When you get annoyed, they might say, “Why are you mad at me?  There was traffic!” or, “This was your idea in the first place.”  So offer some gentle instruction to escape their passive vicious cycle: “You know, it’s okay to tell me at the outset that you don’t want to do this. It won’t offend me, and next time, we can choose something we both want to do.

Bullies, however, are their own special case, and require a variation on confrontation. Bullies can smell fear, and they are looking for an emotional response, so it’s important not to share secrets, try for empathy, or reveal how much you’ve been hurt. “When you..I feel…” does not work with bullies—they’ll be glad to have upset you.

So first, put on your best poker face. Blank is what you’re going for. You don’t want to start a fight or break down weeping—again, they’re going for an effect.

Next, confronting a bully doesn’t have to mean causing a scene or violence. First, simply try ignoring the bully, responding with a non-committal, monotone phrase (like, “Uh-huh,” over and over again.) Or agree with what they said, to show they’re having no effect on you (e.g., “You’re a loser!”  “Hey, thank you!”)

Bullies only go where they can push buttons. When you show them you’re untouchable, they will escalate at first--but when they realize their taunts are ineffective, they’ll leave you alone. 

Strategy 3: Acquiesce

This is another way of saying, "pick your battles." This strategy is only an option if the situation is temporary, or not worth engaging in.

Acquiescing will get you through the wedding reception where you’re seated next to a complainer, showoff, motormouth, or Debbie Downer. Go along to get along (within reason.) 

But don’t use this strategy for longer than an hour or so in total. Misery doesn’t love company—misery loves miserable company, so it’s important not to stay in it so long that you get sucked into wallowing right along with them.

Strategy 4: Avoid

In the context of dealing with your personal fears and insecurities, I usually discourage avoidance. But avoidance of difficult people isn’t bad if it’s for your own safety. Try the other three approaches first, and if all else fails, sometimes a little distance is a smart thing.

If it’s for your own protection, and not used as a tool to hurt feelings, you can avoid eye contact or choose a faraway seat. But always be respectful. Don’t lie about your plans. Don’t giggle to your friends when the difficult person walks away—this is not middle school. When turning down a request or invitation, you can say, “Thank you, but it’s just not my style,” or “Thanks for thinking of me, but I think I’m not the best match.”

How to Take Care of Yourself After Dealing With a Difficult Person

  • Remember that it’s not your fault. It’s the difficult person who is behaving inappropriately. You don’t have control over how they act.
  • Allow yourself some time to recover. After Debbie Downer’s rain cloud has passed over your cubicle, I give you full permission to treat yourself to a few minutes of cyberloafing or a quick power walk around the building to shake it off. With a more intense encounter, turn it into a journal entry, use a friend as a sounding board, or turn the music up extra loud next time you exercise and pound out your angst.
  • Get support. Specifically for bullies, another tactic is to bring in an ally. For your child, bring in competent school administrators, or at work, a rock-solid buddy. Document everything.  But stop short of simply outsourcing to higher-ups and then crossing your fingers; with this, you give up control, and things may spiral or disappoint. Instead, work with the higher-ups, but always make a logical argument—for example, the bully is costing the workplace time and money, and is trashing morale. Do not make it a moral or emotional issue, which, sadly, might cause you to lose credibility.
  • Crank your compassion. Feel sorry for them. The blamers, showoffs, passive-aggressives, and heck, almost all difficult people of the world are, in general, pretty miserable. You don’t have to save them, but you can feel for them.
  • Know that most people are on your side. If you, as a reasonable person, are having trouble with a difficult person, know that others probably are, too. You’re not alone.


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