Dealing With Difficult People: Prepare for the Worst, and Hope for the Best.

dealing with difficult people

Dealing with difficult people – be they family members or coworkers – isn’t always easy, and can bring up a variety of painful feelings and challenging behavioral patterns. Add a bit of stress, close proximity, or an important transition, and you have a recipe for the kind of painful interpersonal dynamics that can ruin your mood, your day, or significantly compromise an already difficult or delicate situation. Recognizing patterns, planning, and keeping your thinking cap on are a few of the top strategies you can use to turn your anxiety and dread into useful action when it comes to difficult interactions. Here are a few key ways to use your discomfort to your advantage:

1) Recognize that stress can bring out the worst behavior in everyone. Know that the stress of work demands, family gatherings, meal making, holidays, and simply the unmet expectations that people will be reasonable and descent can bring on stress, and with it inadequate stress responses and sometimes poor behavior in your family. Stress and anxiety have a way of escalating emotions, such that already strained relationships can be particularly difficult during times of stress (think holidays, family crisis, life transition). Understanding and predicting this is half the battle.

2) Know that others’ behavior has more to do with them than with you. Difficult family members, like all of us, react in large part to their expectations and beliefs about people and situations, and not necessarily to what is actually being said or done. Like we all can fall victim to escalated reactions when our buttons are pushed, people who are difficult and irritable often experience their buttons being pushed on a regular basis, bringing to interactions a healthy dose of past experience and unresolved conflict that are generally negative, resistant to change, and sometimes have little to do with current realities or the people around them.. Even if a difficult person’s behavior feels personal to you, recognize that it has more to do with them than you, and that such negativity is a reflection of how much they are struggling.

3) Compassion and forgiveness can help keep feelings at bay, and protect you from getting sucked in. Understanding a difficult person can seem like something we would do for them, but its real value is in helping you. The more you can understand how a difficult person feels, sees the world, and behaves in it, the better able you can navigate interactions with control, empathy, and personal distance. This control can go a long way to staving off feeling sucked into the personalization, conflict, and anger that can be the familiar by-products of interacting with a difficult family member. Recognizing how hard it must be to live in their skin can help remind you to think about things from their perspective, protecting you from falling into the wish that they would behave differently. If you feel strong enough to go a step further, you can use this empathy to foster a mindset of curiosity and compassion for how it is they have arrived where they are in life. This understanding can set the stage for forgiveness, that can further protect you from absorbing projected conflicts or harboring the destructive anger that so often ensues. For more on how forgiveness can help you, please take a look here.

4) Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. The 19th Century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli is believed to have first said, “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.” And today, this advice is still a smart way of facing difficult situations: be hopeful, yet prepared. While difficult family behavior is painful and sometimes surprising, it can also be predictable in many ways – and prediction is power and control. Predict difficult behavior, visualize typical interactions, and strategize new and optimal responses. You might consider thinking in advance about safe conversation topics, responses that minimize conflict (agreeing or compassionate responses are generally the most successful), and graceful exit strategies that limit potentially painful interactions. Thinking and preparing in advance is not expecting the worst, but it is preparing for it. And preparation can give you the tools you need to face difficult family interactions with confidence.

5) Find opportunities to complement, praise, and agree. I know this might seem like the very last thing you feel like doing in preparing to interact with a difficult family member, but these strategies can be effective in inoculating difficult family members from familiar patterns of blame, hurt, and attention seeking that are so often the landscape of difficult interactions. Using the information gleaned from step three will help you determine what proactive steps you could take to inoculate difficult behavior. For example, an attention-seeking person will respond positively to attention and complements, whereas an argumentative person will respond to being agreed with, just as a self-absorbed person will respond to being the focus of conversation. Chances are you already understand what kinds of behavior will likely produce the best results – the trick is to recognize that engaging these strategies is out of your personal choice to manage an interaction, and not because you are the subject of manipulation.

6) No matter how familiar, frustrating, and powerful your family’s behavior is, remember you have control over YOUR behavior. It is easy to fall into familiar routines and patterns that are unhelpful – even painful – with a sense that you simply don’t have control over yourself. But you always have control over yourself and your reactions, even if it can feel really hard. Give yourself permission to set limits, and pause interactions if they are getting heated. A phrase like, “I can see you are getting upset (or having a hard time keeping your voice under control). Perhaps we should talk about (revisit) this another time,” can be particularly helpful to notice a family member’s feelings and behaviors without engaging them, while also taking control to suggest more helpful alternatives. (maybe link to controlling anger… search my site for irritability)

7) Take care of yourself. No list such as this would be complete without a solid self-care reminder. Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are some key ways to keep your mind working optimally, whereas surrounding yourself with caring supportive friends can help you feel buttressed and connected – often the very things we seek (and lack) from the difficult people in our lives. It can be virtually impossible to implement the above strategies if you are feeling yourself raw, misunderstood, irritable, or exhausted. Making your needs a priority, and meeting them elsewhere, is the surest defense against being vulnerable to a difficult person.

Dealing with difficult people is never easy, but you can get better at it with practice. The key is to keep your thinking brain always in the game so that your emotional buttons stay in check and don’t get the best of you. Empathy, compassion, planning, strategy and limit-setting can all work together to help you feel control and optimize these difficult interactions.


Looking for more help with your relationships? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD