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How to Handle Difficult People

by Harinder Ghatora Personal Empowerment Healthy Relationships

Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, peace and merriment.

I think there’s a part of all of us that buys into that fairytale image of an open log fire, a beautifully decked out tree, piles of presents, cards, food, drink and a smiling, loving family.

Yes, that’s right … I said ‘family’.

For some people that word is enough to pop the fantasy bubble right away!

Most of us get to spend time with family at Christmas. But, for some, that reality is about as far away from joy, peace and merriment as you can get.

In fact, it’s often the cause of great anxiety and dread.

A couple of people have articulated this sentiment in my therapy room in recent weeks, but one of my friends summed it up oh so perfectly:

“I spend most of my year avoiding these people, and now I have to not only spend time with them but also pretend that I’m enjoying myself. How do I deal with that? I’m already dreading it. My older sister hates me and takes every opportunity to put me down. My brother can’t handle his booze and no doubt will drink too much and pick a fight with somebody by the end of the day. His wife is so stuck up … she thinks she’s better than us, and I have to put up with her stupid face-pulling because she thinks everything my mum has done is not up to scratch. My younger sister is an absolute drama queen. My mum doesn’t seem to understand that my stomach has limited capacity and that I can’t eat non-stop for twelve hours. My dad is so quiet I’m worried he’s got dementia or something. And I know I’m going to spend the whole day watching my gran, wondering if she’s still alive.“

There was something about the way she described this far from idyllic Christmas scene - one that I guess is familiar to a lot of us - that touched a chord, and despite myself, I burst out laughing.

Yet my friend’s question had been dead serious: “How do I deal with that?”

So, in an attempt to answer it - and apologise to my friend for my insensitive laughter – here are my suggestions for coping with challenging situations and people over the coming weeks.

These are 7 steps which, if you put them into practice, will help you survive the holiday season with your sanity intact.

1. Become a Curious Observer

Try to cultivate a more detached attitude and consciously concentrate on observing rather than participating in any family events.

This doesn’t mean you don’t talk or take part in the festivities; it simply means that some part of you remains quietly watchful of what is going on with the people around you.

Observe what people are doing with a healthy sense of curiosity, and see if you can switch your energy from being offended and reacting to contemplating why they might be saying or doing the things that wind you up so much.

Shifting your attention in this way will help take the heat out of any situation that is potentially intense or upsetting for you.

2. Keep Your Attention on Your Own Business

Remember that you don’t have to fix, change or make everything right.

That is not your job.

Your only job is to take responsibility for the things that are within your control.

We all know that usually boils down to taking responsibility for yourself alone; how you are feeling, reacting and behaving.

The author Byron Katie sums it up nicely. She says there are only three kinds of business: your business, other people’s business, and God’s business.

You have very little, if any, control over other people’s or God’s business, so don’t waste your precious time or energy trying to do so.

Simply take your attention away from others and focus on yourself and your own reactions and behaviour.

Remind yourself that how others are feeling, behaving and reacting is their business – and you are not responsible for that.

3. Focus on the Reality of the Situation

People who are difficult are often trapped in a certain way of being.

This could be in a belief system, or a certain emotion, such as hatred, grief, or fear.

Something in their history has made them the way they are, but you do not need to take part in their drama.

Knowing that what they are doing says more about them and less about you can set you free.

By not engaging in the drama you can also set them free from their perpetual pattern of negative behaviour.

Instead, remain connected to your own heart, your inner strength and your truth.

If someone is consistently rude to you, it’s likely a reflection of their emotional state, or their poor inter-personal skills, or their unhappiness, rather than anything you may have done to provoke that reaction.

So, you can make the choice to see it as such and, instead of reacting in an upset or angry way, let it go.

4. Establish Boundaries

Just as the fence around your house demarcates your territory and keeps you and your belongings safe, personal boundaries in our relationships help to keep us physically, emotionally and psychologically safe.

You can head off much conflict and drama in your life by having clear boundaries, knowing yourself, walking away when you need to, not letting people dump on you, and having a strong respect and love for yourself.

It is important to be clear with yourself what your boundaries are and then, either through your words or actions, communicate these boundaries to people in your life.

For example, you decide how much time you’re willing to spend with a certain person, or to stand your ground and refuse to be drawn in if someone is trying to manipulate you.

This is about looking after yourself and transforming the effect others’ negative behaviour has on you.

You don’t need to join someone else’s drama party and let them adversely affect you because they need attention or want to dump their negative emotions onto you.

Know where you end and the other person starts, and don’t confuse their issues with your own by reacting to their behaviour.

5. Upgrade the Energy You Bring to the Situation

The energy you bring to a situation will either magnify the issues, or dilute them.

Going into a situation or interaction with another person all fired up with memories of their past misdemeanours and all the previous conflicts you’ve had with them will simply add fuel to the fire and ignite further explosive interactions.

Instead, just for a short time, try and drop any hatred, anger and desire for revenge and bring a more peaceful, empowered, and clearer version of yourself to the table.

You can do this by spending some time alone beforehand journaling about your negative feelings so that they are expressed and then focusing on the more positive feelings you want to cultivate before you meet the person in question.

You can also commit to staying in the present moment.

This change in attitude and energy has the potential to transform any fiery situation and bring an air of peace and acceptance.

Remember, you always have a choice. You can either add fuel to a fire or you can snub it out.

6. Cultivate Resilience

Resilience means being tough and having the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

The more resilient you are the stronger you will feel.

When confronted by a difficult person it takes great courage and strength to be able to bypass and ignore their poor behaviour without taking it personally, and to be able to drop any judgement and keep an open heart.

Dealing effectively with difficult people does not mean you have to accept their bad behaviour.

It means you respond powerfully with strength and courage. Sometimes this means rising above the nonsense and choosing not to engage, and sometimes it means standing up for yourself and confronting the issue.

When we react to bad behaviour in such a way as to be overly influenced and impacted by someone else’s wounding, projections, nastiness, vilification, put-downs and attempts to destabilise us, we become victims.

Become more resilient and simply don’t play the other person’s game.

Toughen up enough so that others’ words and actions don’t affect you so much.

Ultimately, this is about cultivating a greater sense of self-worth.

You can read how to do this in one of my earlier blogs – How to Cultivate Greater Self Esteem

7. Move Beyond Being a Victim

You always have a choice about how you respond to situations.

It really doesn’t matter what is going on around you, no-one can make you do or say anything unless, at some level, you have decided to do or say those things.

Spend some time planning ahead. Identify, and if need be, adjust your expectations.

Will you be going to your family gathering expecting everything to be wonderful and then feel upset when it is not?

Use your past experiences to make a mental note of what is likely to happen.

That way when your sister puts you down, or your brother gets drunk, or your mum keeps fussing over you, you won’t get so angry simply because you were expecting that to happen.

Spend some time thinking about what the key triggers are for you.

What is it in previous encounters that has upset you so much?

Use journaling or talk to a confidant to pinpoint what could be causing you to react in this way.

Become so conscious of your triggers that when someone tries to press those particular buttons you feel in control enough not to react negatively.

Write down your coping strategies for when intense feelings do come up.

For example, “When I feel angry I will:

  • excuse myself and go to the bathroom,
  • leave the house and go for a walk,
  • do some deep breathing,
  • ring my friend and have a rant,
  • set a time to leave for home.

Recognise the fact that at the end of the day you hold your own power.

You don’t have to play victim to other people’s psychological games.

You don’t have to be offended if someone is putting you down if you know who you are and feel secure within yourself.

You don’t have to stress about things that are outside your control, and you don’t have to put up with any behaviour that you deem to be inappropriate.

When it comes to difficult relationships it always pays to remember that you have three choices:

a) You can maintain the status quo and do what you always do (get upset, argue, sulk, storm off etc.).

b) You can try and change someone else (which is impossible if they are not willing to change, and anyway, this option usually has the opposite effect by further entrenching someone in their existing beliefs and behaviours).

c) Or, you can change yourself.

Wise people know that the latter is really the only option available.

And, at the end of the day, just as another person’s behaviour is a reflection of their inner world, so too is your behaviour a reflection of who you are as a person. As the actor and musician Dave Willis has said:

“Show respect even to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of yours.”


  • Davinder:

    23 Dec 2017 09:17:45

    Thanks harinder I will definitely be trying out a few of these strategies! Have a good Christmas x

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