Dealing with difficult people

July 22nd, 2009

Before yesterday’s appearance, I wrote up some notes about dealing with difficult people–both in general, and a few specific varieties. Here’s the 411, since I didn’t get to deliver it all on the TEEvee:

Some general advice for dealing with difficult people:

1. Dilute them! If you are obliged to entertain someone you don’t much care for, invite them to group events–or activities with the emphasis on activity.
2. Reinforce the behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don’t. Giving in to whining, flattery, bullying, etc. is tempting, but makes it more likely that the person will continue in their bad behavior.
3. If you decide to confront someone, present the situation as a problem for both of you to solve together, and be willing to make compromises in your own behavior.
4. Pick your battles. Not everyone is going to be pleasing to you in all ways at all times. Learn to not be easily annoyed.
5. Getting along well with difficult people is a marketable skill. Developing a reputation as someone who can handle tricky, temperamental people can be a great help in your career.

Some particular types …

The socially overbearing spouse/significant other of a good friend. Don’t try to socialize as couples if you can’t stand a friend’s worse half. Instead, get together in large groups–or else get together with your friend sans spouses. When entertaining Beauty and the Beast is unavoidable, let it enhance your appreciation of your own marriage.

The know-it-all new co-worker. You could let the obnoxious new kid fall on their face–and maybe they’ll need to once or twice before they listen to you. Rather than hazing a workplace newcomer, even–or especially–if they’re getting off on the wrong foot, become their mentor. Help them navigate your workplace culture, and translate their ideas and perspectives.

The overly helpful neighbor. Some people just can’t help themselves–they want to bring a casserole to your carefully planned sushi brunch, tell you about the new supplement that’s supposed to be so good for people with that medical condition you wish you hadn’t told them you had, help you plant tulip bulbs whether you like tulips or not. These folks only want to be helpful, and you can’t block their energy–but you can redirect it. Ask them specifically for the kind of help or advice you do want–and if you truly don’t want anything at all, then ask them for the favor of a listening, nonjudgmental ear.

The nosy in-law. The only way to put off a barrage of nosy questions is with good-natured, laughing stubbornness and a refusal to give in, ever. When are you going to have children? They’ll be among the first to know! How much rent are you paying? Enough but not too much, thanks! Make sure your spouse is on the same page with this tactic. (“Why do you want to know?” is usually a good response to a nosy question, but you can’t use it with family, because they will TELL YOU.)

The one-upper.
You went to Cape Cod; SHE went to Paris. You are thinking of getting a Prius; SHE is moving to a yurt in Montana. You can’t beat the one-upper at her own game; the only thing to do, really, is to enjoy and applaud the gusto with which she plays it. Because ultimately, these people aren’t competing with you, but with some unattainable image of themselves.


4 Responses to “Dealing with difficult people”

  1. MelissaJane on July 22, 2009 11:09 am

    The last sentence of this post is perhaps the most insightful thing I’ve read all week.

  2. Kate on July 22, 2009 12:43 pm

    I do #1 all the time! Especially with difficult family situations. We call it “diluting the crazy.”

  3. Karen on July 23, 2009 2:51 pm

    The One-Upper can be particularly fun when topics such as appendectomies come up: “Well when I had MY appendix out the doctor discovered it had ruptured 3 times and was actually growing teeth and hair.”

  4. Carolyn (Cambridge) on July 23, 2009 9:39 pm

    Re Beauty and the Beast, also: when it is the four of you, a public place may be better than either party’s home.
    I’ve sometimes been able to express myself in a restaurant, in a way that I’d find too awkward if I were either host or guest; and it’s a real lifesaver to know that I could always walk out to the bar area and breathe, or scream quietly.

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