Over the decades, I’ve had my share of experiences with difficult people. Personally and professionally, I’ve encountered situations that have left me feeling frustrated, fuming, attacked and even defeated with nothing constructive coming from the experience. It took me a long time and a lot of figurative bruises to learn how to successfully navigate these stressful encounters. Here are two key lessons I’ve learned along the way.
You don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to.
This is perhaps the best lesson to learn early on. It is so important to assess a situation and actively choose whether or not to be a part of it. There are some people who are just negative, argumentative or generally miserable. There are others who are incapable of backing down once heated up and yet others who become impenetrable to rational thought when in a heated state of mind. When encountering any of these, it’s always best to pause, breathe and think strategically prior to engaging -- if engaging. Carefully consider what, if anything, you can accomplish by engaging, always remembering that there are some arguments that serve no legitimate purpose in furthering the conversation or relationship. Only engage if there is an immediate need to. Otherwise, take a step back and consider having a more constructive conversations at a later date, if the topics of discussion warrant it. Many times, the sheer act of disengaging can be disarming, resulting in the other party becoming open and willing to negotiate a resolution.
The only person we have control over is ourselves
The simplicity of this truth is amazing. When fully considered and observed, it holds immense power in dealing with difficult people. Too often people look to control things they can’t, especially other people. How many times have you heard someone claim the only or best way to resolve a problem is by having another person change? Or, have you heard a person blame another for their own feelings and behaviors (“He made me…”)? Relying on changing someone else as a solution will for the majority result in negative repetition. As will neglecting to take responsibility for our own inputs and responses to a situation. However, when we step back and fully recognize the amount of control we have over our own thoughts, feelings and actions, and the utter lack of control another person has over same, things become significantly easier to navigate.
It once again comes down to making active choices: choosing whether to engage; choosing how to engage; choosing how to respond. I always recommend contemplating 5 steps ahead, considering purpose and likely outcomes of various scenarios. Then, determining the value of each and choosing your reaction accordingly. At times, the greatest value will come from not engaging at all. Other times, a highly controlled, non-emotional and rational response will be best. In either case, it’s always best to focus only on the necessary components to reach a productive resolution. Rise to a higher level, view from top down, and avoid getting caught in the minutia. Let the other person waste their energy where you refuse to and carefully observe the reactions and outcome. Learn from it. Remember the process your counterpart takes for the next interaction. It will many times help you determine the best approach when another difficult situation arises.
"When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity."
- Dale Carnegie