When I wrote Difficult People; a Guide to Handling Difficult Behaviour 12 years ago, it was aimed mainly at workplace situations. But many people who read it told me that it had a positive impact on their personal relationships as well.
This wasn’t a surprise because it is the behaviour that matters, the context is secondary. The basic relationship and communication skills that are involved when dealing with behaviour you don’t like are the same whatever the situation.
Some people don’t get that, and I’ve had a trickle of questions over the years along the lines of “That’s great, but what about at home; I LIVE with a difficult person?”
At times, don’t we all, it has to be said. Equally, we can all appear difficult to others from time to time. Unless that is you are one of Nature’s rare successes; someone who is never difficult (if you are, it might be worth asking around).
The question recently prompted me to put together some pointers:
1. Keep Your Cool
This will allow you to maintain self-control and avoid escalation of the problem. If the difficult behaviour has gone on for some time it can trigger anger or frustration and a range of other feelings. If you can’t stay cool, choose another time and or place to discuss things, when you can.
2. Remember what you value in each other
What are the qualities in the other person that drew you together or which you normally appreciate in happier times? When you over-focus on the bad stuff it is much harder to find common ground where you can begin to communicate effectively.
3. Choose your battles wisely (is it really a problem?)
Domestic arguments develop a life of their own. What’s more, 69% of them have no solution! That’s according to marital researcher John Gottman. If you can understand why you find the other person’s behaviour difficult, in some cases you might decide that it would simply be better to live and let live.
4. Shift from Being Reactive to Proactive
If you feel critical of someone else’s behaviour, rather than focusing on that, consider doing what you can to make the relationship easier by proactively encouraging things between you that are not issues.
If the difficult behaviour involves someone not following up on their promises, how can you explain how you feel about it without attacking the other person?
5. Aim for collaboration, not competition
Difficult behaviour can breed frustration, contempt, disappointment and anger (and a range of other unhelpful feelings). While this needs acknowledgement, don’t let it drive a wedge between you. Aim for ‘getting alongside’ the other person. Aim to create a spirit of collaboration by discussing the problem, not attacking the person.
This is a skimpy version and I realise that there’s a lot it doesn’t cover I’m updating the book for a new e-version and I’ll add a new section to cover personal relationships in more detail.
And finally (but not the last word!). John Gottman also claims that there is a five-to-one ratio that helps healthy relationships stay resilient enough to deal with the bad stuff without it destroying them.
There’s a pattern displayed in a healthy couple’s interactions: Though they might still bad-mouth each other from time to time, both partners say five times more postitve and loving things to each other on a regular basis. Expressing of mutual appreciation is a habit, and it gives the relationship the strength it needs to weather the tougher moments.
Gottman, J., (2007), Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.