Even if you’re as cool as a cucumber, there’ll always be somebody to test your patience! Whether they’re criticising you, belittling you, or simply ignoring you, people can be challenging.
So, what is the best way to deal with difficult people? Well, contrary to popular belief, the best way to deal with challenging people is to embrace them. After all, denying your problems only gives them more power.
That said, it’s not easy to embrace people who make you seethe with anger or shrivel with fear. But it becomes a lot easier if you view difficult people as blessings rather than problems. Once you make that shift, your relationships will become altogether more satisfying.
What makes a person difficult?
If I asked you, ‘when was the last time you encountered an unreasonable person?’, you probably wouldn’t have to think too long before coming up with an answer. We are all tested by so-called ‘difficult people’ on a regular basis.
It might seem like there are certain ‘types’ of difficult people, such as the ‘know-it-alls’ or the ‘I-can-do-it-better-than-yous’. But this is quite a judgemental way of looking at it. In fact, we’ve all been a ‘difficult person’ at least once in our lives (just remember being a teenager!).
Although everyone is ‘difficult’ from time-to-time, people with low emotional intelligence (EI) tend to be the most inflammatory. However, it’s also true that people with low EI are easily triggered by others, so they may (unreasonably) perceive others to be ‘difficult’.
So, the bottom line is, all humans can become better communicators if they are willing to develop their emotional intelligence!
Why low emotional intelligence makes people difficult
Emotional Intelligence matters because it is the lens through which we see and experience our lives. The more emotionally intelligent we are, the easier we’ll find it to manage our emotions and behaviours. On the flip side, low emotional intelligence can lead to:
- Poor self-awareness – People with low EI tend to lack self-awareness. This can leave them vulnerable to addictions and impulsive behaviours. Indeed, addictions often arise when people try to suppress difficult emotions rather than deal with them head-on. In contrast, being in-tune with our emotions enables us to cope with our problems in a healthier way. Addicts are often perceived to be very difficult – especially by close family members.
- Arrogance – This is quite common in people with inflated self-esteem but poor self-acceptance. It can be difficult to build meaningful relationships with people who are driven by arrogance.
- A lack of empathy – A boss who lacks empathy will judge you harshly if you make a genuine mistake. Or, they’ll refuse to give you time off work for an important family event. This is because they struggle to see things from your point of view. Also, people who lack empathy often have poor listening skills. As a result, the colleagues and friends of an unempathetic person will struggle to feel truly ‘heard’.
- Anxious/ highly critical of others – However, it’s important to look at things from a slightly different angle. People who are very anxious may perceive others to be ‘difficult’ when they are not. For example, people with health anxiety may interpret doctors to be ‘unhelpful’. Also, people with social anxiety may perceive all extroverted people to be extremely challenging. As mentioned, our perceptions about others are partly a reflection of ourselves, so we must be mindful of that when labelling others as ‘difficult’.
So, we’ve established that low emotional intelligence can make human interactions difficult, but what’s the solution?
Clearly, we shouldn’t just become social recluses until we’ve developed better emotional intelligence. So, what’s the alternative? Well, instead of seeing difficult human interactions as problems, perhaps we can view them as opportunities.
How to use human interactions to boost your EI
According to Eckhart Tolle, we should ‘regard difficult people as blessings’. Why is this? Well, difficult people give us the opportunity to enrich our emotional intelligence.
Let’s compare emotional intelligence to physical fitness… To become fitter and healthier, you must work out regularly. So, to become more emotionally-intelligent, it follows that you should do some ‘emotion work’ on a regular basis.
Part of this ‘emotion work’ can be done by reading self-help books, taking classes, etc., but hands-on experience is also necessary. Here’s how it can be done:
- Define the difficulty
Whether you’re dealing with a difficult boss or an arrogant best friend, first define the ‘difficult’ situation as you perceive it. Ideally, take pen to paper and answer the following questions:
- What did you find challenging? Try to be specific about the other person’s behaviour, body language etc. For example, you might write ‘My boss didn’t wave or make eye contact with me this morning, but she spoke to everyone else. She ignores me a lot…and it makes me feel rubbish.’
- What emotions and feelings did this experience trigger? Be very specific here… Labelling emotions helps to develop emotional intelligence.
- What is the other person thinking/feeling about the situation? For now, just acknowledge your own presumed narrative. So, it could be “My boss must not like me. She must think I am boring or not value my work, otherwise she’d have taken the time to say ‘hi’…”
Often, we get so caught up in our emotional reactions that we don’t take the time to fully acknowledge what we are feeling and why we are feeling it. We cannot achieve self-awareness without fully acknowledging our emotions, so don’t overlook this step.
If you do nothing else, take the time to fully acknowledge your emotional reactions as this will significantly enrich your emotional intelligence.
- Provide 3 alternatives
The next stage of the process is to come up with 3 alternative explanations of the situation. It’s best to write them down rather than keep them in your mind. To do this task, you’ll be practising empathy and rational thinking – both key components of EI.
So, for the previous example, you might write:
- Maybe my boss was just super busy this morning. She knows I can be trusted to get on with my work, so perhaps she didn’t feel the need to say ‘Hi’.
- Maybe I am giving off unfriendly vibes and my boss left me alone because she didn’t want to feel like she was ‘bothering’ me.
- Maybe my boss just didn’t realise I had arrived… After all, she is quite busy in the mornings so her attention could have been elsewhere.
Sometimes, people try to intentionally hurt others through their actions. However, often this is not the root cause of interpersonal rifts. Often, it is our reluctance to see the world from another’s perspective which causes us to label them as ‘difficult’. Or, it could be our own anxieties which our clouding our judgements.
Even if you strongly believe the other person is wholly at fault, don’t skip this step. It’s important to consider alternative explanations before you jump to conclusions.
- Change the dynamic
You might find that changing the dynamic between you and the other person helps to improve your relationship.
So, let’s assume you think number 2 might be true (I.e. that you are giving off unfriendly vibes). For the next week, you could make a concerted effort to greet your boss in a friendly manner, and see if this improves the relationship. Remember, relationships aren’t one-sided. Both people must take responsibility for the dynamic of the relationship. Treating the other person in the way you’d like to be treated is often a great place to start. This is a very simple example of how modelling desirable behaviour can change the dynamic of your relationships. Think carefully about how you could incorporate this technique into your personal and professional lives.
If you try to change the dynamic but it doesn’t work, try having a grown-up conversation about the dynamic, instead. However, it’s important not to blame or accuse the other person. Instead, try to use ‘we’ statements as these share the burden of responsibility. Jay Johnson – behavioural analyst and executive coach – recommends saying something like “I’ve noticed we are having trouble communicating…We should probably take a look a this a little more effectively…”
- Practise acceptance
Difficult people allow you to practise the art of acceptance. Importantly, a large part of this acceptance is self-acceptance of your own reactive emotions.
So, let’s say your manager’s tendency to ignore you creates feelings of vulnerability, resentment and shame. You either have the choice to accept these feelings (through mindfulness) or repress/deny them. As mentioned, the latter can lead to addictions and other self-destructive behaviours.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for inviting acceptance into your life. The more you practise it, the easier you will find it to stay calm in difficult situations.
- Walk away
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, connecting with a particular person may not be possible.
Mindfulness teaches acceptance but it doesn’t teach resignation to one’s life circumstances. Sometimes, through mindfulness, you’ll realise that a person or situation is not helpful for you and therefore the best thing to do is walk away.
Most of the time this is not the case. This is because, usually, you will be able to modify your behaviour to improve the relationship. Nevertheless, you (and only you) may sometimes decide that it is right to walk away from a particular person or situation.
How to cope with challenging people
To summarise, try to see challenging people as opportunities rather than stumbling blocks. After all, it is through interacting with so-called ‘difficult people’ that you learn more about yourself. In turn, this will enhance your emotional IQ.
As Daniel Goleman says, developing your emotional intelligence is a lifelong process. This means opportunities for personal development should always be embraced.
So, next time someone triggers you, don’t fly off the handle! But don’t ignore them, either…. Instead, practice empathy, acceptance and reflexive thinking. Above all, see the situation as an opportunity for personal growth.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.