One of the most common reasons why people get psychotherapy or coaching is to reduce stress caused by irrational, inflexible people. Ironically, it’s mostly the reasonable, adaptable adults who seek counsel (because the adults who really need help but won’t get it are driving them nuts). Difficult people generally lack the self-awareness and courage necessary for personal growth and development, so they deny responsibility for change and others are forced to accommodate them – especially at holiday gatherings when avoidance is not always possible.
These five suggestions will help you to navigate thorny interactions with those stuck-in-their-ways relatives who try your patience – not just on special occasions but anytime:
Most difficult people don’t want to be difficult. Being demanding, needy, critical, or otherwise annoying is usually a direct result of deep-seated insecurity. The more someone tries to control, the louder they yell, the more they seek attention, the more likely it is that they feel inadequate, powerless, and unable to attract what they want without force or manipulation. When you take in the probable reality that someone’s exasperating behavior is more about them than it is about you, you become less defensive and more compassionate.
Difficult people are less difficult when their conduct is viewed through a non-judgmental lens. Rather than classifying someone who is perpetually late as inconsiderate, conclude that time management isn’t their strong suit. Instead of casting an overly quiet person as aloof or snobbish, assume they’re just socially awkward. Understanding upsetting actions within an impartial context takes out the sting.
Your only chance for coaxing more preferable performance from a difficult person is to treat them as you would your average neighbor, client, or colleague. What this means is finding something, anything encouraging to say – That joke you told at dinner was hilarious. Thank you so much for bringing that delicious dessert! – even if that difficult someone is driving you up a tree, and as long as it’s genuine. The psychology here is that difficult people become more difficult when they are met with resistance or criticism, and they just might do more of what you like when they see that positive actions bring compliments.
Difficult people become a bigger problem when you enable their bad behavior out of guilt or obligation. Just putting up with someone because you feel sorry for or are related to them simply demonstrates that their bad manners are not only okay but effective. When you assert your right to be happy by interacting with prickly people in ways that work for you – nicely excusing yourself from an overly negative conversation, limiting your time at particularly taxing social events, staying in touch on your terms – you feel less irritated and more in command. And the bonus is that when you restrict a difficult person’s access to you, they just might contemplate how they can change their ways to gain more of your company.
The hallmark of mental health is the capacity to bend and flex when necessary for the sake of the greater good – to a point. Attending family functions you’d rather not attend just so your kids can get to know their cousins makes sense, for example, unless doing so requires that you put up with untenable dysfunction. If someone betrays you, seriously disrespects you, or simply puts your stomach in knots, it’s wise to stay away until you see clear signs of consistent improvement. A good rule of thumb is that when someone’s behavior moves from difficult to damaging, from annoying to attacking, your safety becomes the priority and it’s time to get out. It’s far better to create your own traditions than to persist when your well-being is at stake.