Well, you can’t just lock them away, can you, those people who like nothing, who disagree with everything, who know better in all situations, and whose jaws would crack if ever forced into a genuine smile.
And you can’t avoid them either. Our days are so littered with people who think bullheadedness is strength; it’s why we have mats at our doors: to wipe our feet of them before we enter “home.” (Of course, if that difficult person lives in your home, I heartily recommend gardening and appropriate interpersonal therapy; misery loves company, yes, but it’s a poor party-thrower.)
So what’s to be done, and in what way, so that dealing with such people doesn’t sap your strength to the point where you no longer give two damns about being diplomatic?
I’ve found CROSSED works: Corrects, Realizes, Obviates, Spaces, Shuts, Empathizes, Directs. Listed in this order solely because acronyms (as with bowties) are cool.
Correction operates under the assumption that everyone wants to learn. We know they do not. We, however, must hope.
Difficult people tend to be like if-then computer statements: If I don’t get my way in some fashion, then I will become unpleasant. Indiscriminately. Everywhere. I will not listen to reason, I will not self-govern, I will not bend. Dr. Seuss wrote about this type of person in Green Eggs and Ham.
In order to gently correct this behavior, one must be creative, which means not meeting the difficult person on the battlefield of their liking, but shifting the emotional center of the scene so that they’re unsure of their footing. This is done by not reacting the way they might expect. It means being consistent, as in not capitulating to them (deep in their hearts they know as well as you they’ll love green eggs and ham). Finally, one should be prepared to confront: difficult people tend to inflate themselves to cover their own fears, silently hoping their display of fiery plumage or inflamed buttocks will make others back down before there’s any chance the difficult person will actually have to prove themselves.
For example, you may be dealing with a person who has to make a big show of exasperation any time they’re asked to do something. You can correct this by cutting them out of the picture since they only make a show so that their magnanimity is acknowledged. Doing it yourself (or even better, getting someone else to do it; difficult people hate being supplanted) drives your difficult person buggy, maybe even buggy enough – after several such training sessions – to begin to realize their difficulty is not desirable.
When faced with the illogic, stubbornness, or just plain mean nature of a difficult person, it’s important to realize a crucial fact: you’re dealing with an immature soul. Most of us get “stuck” soul-wise at a certain age. Some, unfortunately, at very young ones. Twelve. Fifteen. Twenty-two.
If you’re faced with a fifty-five year old whose difficult behavior matches that of a teenager, the urge to expect more from them strikes your grey matter fast and with pinpoint accuracy. When you realize you’re not going to get maturity from this person, it becomes your responsibility to change your game. If you’re dealing with an immature soul, consider the emotional currency that moves them. There are those who can’t get their acts together in the morning to save their lives. They jump out of bed late and make your morning a difficult hell while berating, “Stupid alarm didn’t go off!”
Interesting. Yours in your room down the hall went off perfectly fine… because you set it. The difficult, illogical teen-brain did not set theirs and somehow, in a Bizarro World scenario, blaming the clock for not being set makes sense. Rather than engage Bizarro in conversation about this, realize that telling them you’ll wait for them in the car, they have ten minutes, and that at eleven minutes they will enjoy a peaceful morning after the sound of your car driving off without them fades, is your best bet for less stress.
When they enter the car, smile and say, “Tomorrow, double check that alarm,” turn the ignition, and speak no more of it. They’ll want to speak of it (because they’ll have to defend themselves, it’s a compulsion). Do not. Engaging a worked-up childbrain in a debate is about as productive a use of your time as shouting complicated instructions at a duck.
Obviate means: to remove a need or difficulty; to prevent. In this sense, a difficult person is handled by showing them there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for their behavior/actions/attitude/etc.
A mirror gets held up to a DP’s heart to say, “Really? You’re doing this? THIS.” It almost requires you to be a detective laying out the facts of the case so far:
“All I asked was what time the movie starts,” to the difficult person who thinks you’re calling into question their event-planning skills.
“You’re already in the kitchen; you can bring me a bag of chips,” to the one who knows Hercules had it easier than them.
“If you don’t know the answer to the question, say so,” to the one who knows all, but will blather on to the nth degree to cover over the fact that they know zip.
When a difficult person is shown how silly they are, they may back down.
Space, The Quiet Frontier
No one grows beneath someone else’s thumb. That’s a fact for any personality type. Yes, with a difficult person, there’s a compulsion in us to help and correct their behavior, but there’s also a time to step back and let that person reach an epiphany on their own. If not an epiphany, a grudging realization. If not a grudging realization, at least you’ve given yourself and that person the potential for a seed to grow.
Confusion is common for difficult people. They want the square peg to go in the round hole so they can move on to pounding other things. Giving them space allows them to tire themselves out without the added strain of being defensive. If at all possible, remove yourself and allow the difficult one to work out on their own whatever “it” they’d rather blow out of proportion.
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Shut them down. Fight fire with fire. Except if they’re a ten, you’re eleven. There are times when a difficult person needs to know HERE THERE BE DRAGONS. Stand taller (sometimes physically, preferably mentally) than them and let them know they can be pigheaded, foolish, obstinate, selfish, petty, aggressive at their own risk.
Yes, we’ve shut them down… and now, because we’re good people, there’s that twinge we turn away from, that inner glomp that sticks itself to our brains no matter how much we try to shake it off: our empathy.
We know difficult people are unhappy; that there’s a complex set of compensating mechanisms and gears clacking away inside them. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but practicing empathy does prevent you from having chronic high blood pressure. There are times when a difficult person simply needs a “Hey, it’s OK” to rehumanize them.
One thing about difficult people is that they’re addicted to their personalities: they need to be an obstacle in order to feel seen or heard. That’s inherently sad, so you can try to be a bit of light to them as long as it doesn’t drain you doing so. Draining others is part of the DP’s bag of addiction-matrix tricks.
This differs from shutting them down. This is where you take complete and utter control of a situation, ignoring every possible outcome of triggering their delicate sensibilities. Visually put, if they’re the log, you’re the river, directing that piece of dead wood’s course. You don’t even acknowledge that they’re difficult (which is yet more Kryptonite to a difficult person): the end result of your interaction with them is all that matters. If you’re not feeding their Ego/Id beast you’ll find that difficult people often slump into line and do what needs to be done.
Finally, and best, the mature individual knows to replenish themselves after navigating the minefields of difficult people. Make sure that there is art in your life, that and good food. And a place where difficulty cannot enter: perhaps a garden, perhaps sacred meditation time, perhaps a daily walk. Always keep in mind that if our lot in life is to routinely encounter difficult people, the corollary is as important and true: to actively and routinely create positive spaces.