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This article will tell you why difficult people are not a threat, and how, if you can’t avoid being with a difficult person,  you can quickly turn the tables. You can use the experience to make yourself more able and confident when you have to deal with them.

If you are reasonable, thinking human being you find difficult people, well… difficult. Whether they are at work or at home dealing with somebody who repeatedly uses difficult behaviour can drive you to distraction. It may be that they want to get their own way, or to stop you getting yours. Perhaps they feel threatened, stressed, or resentful about something, the reasons don’t matter.

What does matter is that they can make YOU feel all of those things, and more. Their behaviour is toxic and if it is prolonged it will become a serious threat to your health and wellbeing.

Anyone on the receiving end of a difficult person’s behaviour is likely to respond in ways that are understandable, but which actually make matters worse. It feels personal so, blame, defensiveness, frustration, anger and the need for revenge are common reactions. If you can’t avoid them – because you have to work or live with them – then you run the risk of longer term effects like self-doubt, stress, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and even depression.

Because of this, many people are slow, or feel unable, to tackle the behaviour head on. Difficult behaviour can make you feel de-skilled anyway, but you might also worry that you’ll be seen as inadequate, whinging, or, God forbid, that you’ll be accused of being a difficult person yourself!

The net result is that if you are the target of someone’s unpleasant or obstructive behaviour, pretty quickly you will see them as a threat. And when we are faced with a threat we all respond in pre-determined ways which, though they are designed to keep us safe, tend to make matters worse, and they do nothing to correct the unwanted behaviour.

Why Difficult People Are Not a Threat

Once you have understood that your natural responses to difficult behaviour are more hindrance than help, you can start to do something about it. This means a change of attitude – one that empowers and encourages you – followed by some tactics you can actually have fun with. Your confidence will grow as you start to take control of the situation.

The difficult person, whether or not they actually start to change the way they treat you, will no longer be a problem in your life. At worst they’ll be an irritant but, with your new-found objectivity, you’ll be better placed to make decisions about how to respond to their difficult behaviour, if it persists.

Difficult Behaviour? Bring It On!

These tactics will create an invisible shield around you. You’ll walk and talk differently, and start to alter the dynamics of the relationship as you gain more power. The way this works is that you’ll be shifting the patterns of interaction between you and the difficult person.

Repeated difficult behaviour sets up a pattern of action (them) and response (you). For example, they shout, you back off; they make a joke at your expense, you pretend to laugh it off but crumble inside; they throw a mood, and you pussy-foot around trying to ease the tension.

These automatic reactions – retreat, compliance and placation in these examples – are part of our basic responses to conflict. Insofar as they keep us safe, they work, but they also tend to reinforce the difficult behaviour we are trying to escape. This is nobody’s fault. The difficult person doesn’t realise that they rely on the predictability of your reactions, and you are certainly not CAUSING the difficult behaviour. It’s just that the two of you are in a self-reinforcing pattern of behaviour/response. A dance, if you like, which works FOR the difficult person, and AGAINST you!

This is nobody’s fault. The difficult person doesn’t realise that they rely on the predictability of your reactions, and you are certainly not CAUSING the difficult behaviour. It’s just that the two of you are in a self-reinforcing pattern of behaviour/response. A dance, if you like, which works FOR the difficult person, and AGAINST you!

When you  break the pattern you make throw the difficult person into disarray, and you start to shift the core of the relationship. Be warned, although you can quickly and radically undermine the difficult behaviour with the steps I suggest, it may not be plain sailing at first. You can expect a couple of immediate consequences once you start to take control by breaking your habitual reactions to the difficult behaviour.

The first is that. you might find it hard to alter your attitude and free yourself from the patterns that have ensnared you. The second is that, in some cases, the difficult person will step up their awkward behaviour as they sense something is changing and their usual methods aren’t working.

But forewarned is forearmed right? Be brave and stick to your plan by using some of the ideas below and you can actually have fun experimenting with your responses to the difficult behaviour. And if they start to become more difficult as a result? Well, that’s just proof that something you are doing is unsettling them, so have confidence and stick to the plan.

Seven Reasons Why…

I promised seven reasons why there is no need to feel threatened by difficult people. Here they are:

1) It’s the Behaviour, not the Person

Although we tend to think of them as a difficult person, it’s actually their BEHAVIOUR we are talking about here… It’s often pointed out that “There’s no such thing as a difficult person”, and that we should be talking about difficult behaviour, rather than identifying people as though they are somehow faulty. And of course, that’s quite right.

But when we are, faced with difficult behaviour most of us have trouble adopting this generous view. We quickly label the offender a ‘difficult person’. While it’s OK to think like this if you don’t know any better, you’ll make yourself stronger and more effective if you remember that it is the BEHAVIOUR that needs tackling. There three main reasons for this and neither have anything to do with being politically correct or nice:

  • When you use a label like ‘difficult person’ you are making a judgement, and that narrows down your ability to think creatively. By remembering that it is the behaviour you don’t like, rather than the person, you empower yourself by focusing on what you want to change in a non-judgemental way. This is a brief explanation, but trust me, focus on the behaviour and avoid making up stories about the character of the difficult person, however seductive the idea might be.
  • Nobody likes having their character attacked. Labelling the other person as ‘difficult’ will seem to them as if you are attacking their character. This is the quickest way to trigger their defensiveness and a counter-attack. On the other hand, realising that it’s the behaviour that needs to change is not only less threatening, it is also more likely to work because changing behaviour is easier than changing a person.
  • If you eventually get to the point where you can discuss their behaviour with them (though this usually isn’t necessary if you follow my suggestions), they will be likely to be more receptive; you’ll be talking about how they are BEHAVING, rather than how they ARE.
  • I know, I said three main reasons, but I’ve just thought of a fourth.
    Let’s face it, we can all be difficult. We can all use obstinacy, moodiness, shouting, criticism, avoidance or any one of dozens of other behaviours from time to time to protect our interests, get our own way or because we are in a bad mood. Keep this in mind and it can help to counter the natural tendency many of us have of judging others too quickly. It also makes it easier for you to see things from their point of view, and to communicate with them. This is not to say you have to agree with them or accept what they say, but as any competent negotiator knows, it is important to respect a person’s right to hold their views – which are, after all, important to them – however unreasonable they might seem to you.

If you can control your natural tendency to label and criticise you’ll remain more in control of the situation. This is particularly true where your patience and compassion are being tested to their limits.

Once you de-personalise it by making their BEHAVIOUR the target of your responses, you can begin to deal with it more forensically and empower yourself with a sense of purpose. You’ll begin to see why difficult people are not a threat, when you see their behaviour as the problem, rather than their person.

2) You Don’t Need Them

Even if you do, because you count on them for financial support, your job, or because you are hopelessly in love with them (though why waste your love on someone who doesn’t respect you enough to behave  towards you like an honourable adult), the mindset you need to adopt is that you DON’T NEED THEM.

When I said that you might find it hard to alter your attitude, this is what I was talking about. When dealing with someone who is persistently difficult you can quickly become emotionally embroiled. It’s difficult to step back and to believe that you don’t need them. But when you do, the effect will be amazing. As soon as you decide it, they have lost their power over you.

Think of it like this. If you have ever bought something expensive where you needed to haggle, like a car of a super-yacht, you’ll know that the person who gets the best deal is the one who is detached from the process. The moment you are emotionally ‘hooked’ the seller will have their way with you; you need to buy it so much that you can be manipulated into paying a higher price. By contrast, as long as you keep in mind that you can walk away (even if you don’t intend to), you’ll remain independent, objective, and in control of your emotions. You are less vulnerable to their attempts to get you to pay a higher price.

It’s the same when faced with another person’s difficult behaviour; if you are on the hook emotionally because you believe that you have to keep the other person happy, you’re the bait for the difficult behaviour. When you realise that it’s a CHOICE, that you’d like to keep them happy if you can, but you don’t HAVE to in a needy way, you’ll be free of their power.

3) The Blame Game doesn’t work, Try Best Intent

Judgements and blame are natural responses when someone treats you badly, but they don’t work. Before I explain the next step I must point out that I’m not asking you to forgive them, nor to like them. You can keep all your negative, character-assassinating thoughts about them, but make sure you keep them to yourself and safely locked away (you can always get them out at four o’clock in the morning if you want to enjoy a private moment of self-pity).

You don’t have to forgive them, but you do have to ACCEPT that things are as they are. Refusal to accept a situation is one of the biggest obstacles to progress through life because it ties us up with resentment, resistance and loads of other Rs like retaliation.
Accept the situation, and you can move on to doing something useful about it. Refuse to accept and you get stuck with it.

I have a strategy called Assume Best Intent, and it goes like this: However difficult, misguided, obstructive or mean their behaviour seems to you, they have their reasons. You’ll never know what the reasons are, so forget it and move on. Instead, consider that whatever their motives, to THEM they seem perfectly justified and reasonable. Consciously or unconsciously, to them, their behaviour is simply intended to get them what they feel they need. They are doing the best with what they have.

4) It’s a learning Opportunity, Go For It

One of the traits that shows up in resilient and productive people is that they tend to see setbacks and challenges as learning opportunities. That’s not to say that they don’t experience all the usual emotions when they have a difficulty. They just don’t dwell on the frustration, resentment, disappointment, hurt and all the other bad feelings that go with the bad stuff that life throws at us.

Seeing things as a learning opportunity is also one of the hallmarks of optimists, and optimism feeds back into personal resilience and the ability to rise to a challenge.

There’s no doubt, reframing setback as an opportunity to learn something helps to take the sting out of what we might otherwise see as ‘failure’. Reframing someone’s obnoxious behaviour means that you can tackle it more strategically and start trying out different tactics and responses (see the Law of Requisite Variety, below).

5) Two Chickens…

It’s often said that it takes two to start an argument, but only one to stop it. The moment you decide not to engage in the game you’ve both been playing, you’ll be in control. Think of it as two chickens with their heads cut off, a bizarre and grisly image perhaps, but it sums up the bizarre behaviour of two people brainlessly confronting each other in a trial of wills.

This is a powerful idea. An argument has been called a ‘dialogue de sourds’, literally, a dialogue of the deaf. It describes a situation where two people respond to each other, but neither understands what the other is trying to get across. When one of them starts to think and act purposefully, with intent, then they control themselves and have a greater chance of having control overall.

6) You Can Learn to Spot and Change the Patterns

Learning to spot and change repetitive and harmful patterns is a life-skill that we are given few opportunities to develop. Sure, we all KNOW we can get into loops of behaviour that take us nowhere. The patterns which each time bring us back to the starting point. We often complain about the “same-old-same-old” as though it is inevitable, and we are powerless to change it.

As I explained earlier, When you can break the pattern you’ll start to throw the difficult person into disarray, and you start to shift the core of the relationship between you. Spotting and changing patterns is a skill that will serve you well in all sorts of situations, it doesn’t just apply to managing difficult behaviour.

7) You Can’t Step Into the Same Stream Twice

To paraphrase Heraclitus the greek philosopher. He meant that, since change is happening all the time, even though you might think “I’ve been here before”, or, “Here we go again”, it’s worth remembering that no two situations are exactly alike, even though, on the surface, they might look like it.

In the same way, no two people are the same as they were, say, last week. We all change constantly.

Once you have DECIDED to be better at handling difficult behaviour, you’ll never be the same person you were. OK, it may not go flawlessly the first time; it takes practice to develop any new skills. Handling difficult behaviour with confidence and flair is no different, but it IS a set of skills which are learnable and do-able. So, if you find yourself thinking “Here we go again”, remember that it’s a warning to try something different (to break the pattern), rather than a prediction that the result will be the same.

I promised you Seven Reasons Why Difficult People Are Not a Threat. I hope that I’ve delivered. There’s more, and it’s the most important information of all!

Then, There’s The Law of Requisite Variety

Finally, this is only the beginning.  The Law of Requisite Variety comes from Cybernetics (the science of communications and control systems in machines and living things). Paraphrased, it says that the person or thing with the greater range of responses will dominate the system.

In relevant language, we mostly have a pretty limited range of responses in a difficult situation. So if your difficult person shouts to get their own way, and your response is pretty much the same each time, the status quo remains the same.

But think! Imagine that you had ten or more responses up your sleeve! Your usual reaction may be to cringe (1) or placate (2) them. How about if you generate more response, like, for example, smiling and remaining silent (3), telling them they are wasting their time shouting at you (4), running away (5), congratulating them on their fine, loud voice (6), crying (7), shouting back (7), hugging them (8), asking some intelligent questions (9)… etc.

I’m not recommending any of these particularly, just pointing out that you are free to choose how to respond, and that a wider range of responses will make you more adaptable than they are. That will put you in control because you are THINKING about your behaviour, whereas they surely are not. If I had to sum this strategy up in a few words – as I often do for my clients – I’d say, have a little fun, try something different and make some mischief.

And Finally, the New You

When you DECIDE you’ve had enough of being somebody else’s punchbag, doormat, comical side-kick, victim, nuisance, fall-guy… or whatever, you take an important first step, and the only one you really need. When you truly understand and ‘get’ why difficult people are not a threat, it will start a transformation and you’ll soon be able to handle courself with greater confidence.

You see, learning to handle yourself with confidence is a path towards personal development, and personal development is all about being able to reflect and make choices about how you think, feel and act.

By contrast, the main reason why difficult behaviour has power over us is that we are afraid, uncertain, needy, compliant of just not thinking clearly about what we want. If you are in charge of your thoughts and feelings, even though you might FEEL uncertain or a little afraid, those feelings don’t have to control you. You can THINK for yourself, decide what you want and choose the course of action that suits YOU.

When you understand this and start to walk the talk, you’ll soon begin to think “I used to have a problem with difficult people”.

See Also

My video course on Udemy:

Tackling Difficult People with Barry Winbolt


Our Basic (and Limited) Conflict Styles

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