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How to Deal with Difficult People

By Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist


Do you have an unfriendly neighbor who never says “hi”? A coworker who always seems angry and gives you short, curt answers? How about a friend or family member who is always criticizing, questioning, or judging your decisions? We have all been on the receiving end of a person’s angry, judgmental, and inconsiderate words and behaviors. Often, these encounters and relationships cause us to feel insecure, frustrated, or wrong in some way, and we tend to react in an angry and defensive manner. We may say hurtful things, defend our position, or just ignore the person but are nonetheless left feeling sad and angry. While we can agree that these people seem to bring out the worst in us, I believe our most significant struggle is the feeling of being rejected, misunderstood, and not appreciated for who we are. What can we do to insulate ourselves if we can’t avoid these relationships? To start, we need to change our focus. Instead of reflecting on how the difficult person’s behavior makes us feel, it is helpful to wonder why he or she acts this way. It is likely that people we experience as difficult are carrying around a significant amount of anger and sadness themselves. Some people may not feel good about themselves, their relationships, or the decisions they have made. The pain that these people feel can then spill over into their everyday interactions with others. For example, the person at work who gives short, curt answers and is unfriendly toward you may be extremely dissatisfied with his or her job or be in a conflictual personal relationship. Friends or family members who criticize your life and the choices you make may be wishing they themselves had made different choices and are feeling angry, regretful, and possibly jealous. Changing your focus from feeling angry and defensive to wondering what hardships or difficulties the person could be experiencing can not only make you feel better about the situation but can result in something far greater—compassion. Realizing that a person may be unhappy about his or her own life and that his or her unfriendly manner has nothing to do with you can greatly reduce your feelings of anger and defensiveness. It can take you from a position of opposition to one of support and understanding. While we can’t really know the details of another person’s life, or necessarily make his or her situation better, we can have a positive impact by showing kindness and compassion. Difficult people really do need it the most! We may decide to smile and wave to our neighbor regardless of his or her response. We may be extra kind and positive with our coworker even when he or she doesn’t even make eye contact or give us the time of day. We can avoid arguments with, or defensive responses from, friends or family members by changing the focus to a positive topic about them. Sometimes one small act of kindness can have a significant and positive impact on a person’s day. Showing compassion and kindness to even the most angry, hurtful person, while difficult at times, can really be healing to someone who is struggling. It is true that we can’t change the circumstances surrounding this difficult person’s life, nor can we solve his or her problems, but we can decide to change our perception of the person and the situation. We can decide to change the way we feel and act in these interactions and we can be what we wish for in others: kind, compassionate, and nonjudgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi expressed in his famous and inspiring quote, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.”



copyright 2013 Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.

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