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January 15, 2019

In: Dealing with Difficult People

Think of someone who you would consider to be difficult. Picture that person in your mind’s eye and just for a moment think about how you feel as you think about being around them. Do you feel anger when you think about something they have done to you? Is sadness maybe the emotion that is evoked as you think about this person because they betrayed or hurt you in some way? Or maybe it’s anxiety – like a boss or a coworker that is constantly critical or ornery. Regardless of who it is or why you consider them to be difficult, picture them clearly in your mind and pay attention to how they make you feel.

Now consider this: you are not having problems with that person’s behaviors, or with that person. You’re actually having problems with your response to that person’s behaviors.

How can we say that? Well, for several reasons. First of all, I don’t think you will argue that each of us is responsible for our own emotions. Other people do not control them, albeit they can influence them. We each have the charge to manage our reactions to other people and to situations. Ultimately, saying that, “He started it,” has never gone over very well in the parental world, let alone in our daily adult living.

From yelling at someone on the freeway for merging into our lane without looking over their shoulder, to blaming our bad mood on the boss’s disorganization or careless antics, our society is somewhat fraught with pointing the finger at other people when we are the one struggling to control our emotions in a given situation.

In addition, people are really only “difficult” to the extent that you and I lack the skills for dealing with what they bring to the table. Look at this principle in this way. Take hang gliding. Hang gliding, to me, would be difficult. Why? Well, I’m terrified of heights for one. And for two, I have absolutely zero skills, training, or experience in hang gliding. Basically, I just don’t know how to do it. But don’t you suppose that if I took some classes to learn how to do it and then practiced a lot, that I could get good at it? Mastering the skill, however, does not mean that the skill of hang gliding itself changed at all. My ability to do hang gliding is the thing that changed.

The same is true for people. Dealing with different types of people, different personalities, and different presentations and behavioral choices requires certain skills. That is why people go to counselors for bigger interpersonal problems (therapists have training in behavioral sciences and people skills). But once you have learned the skills yourself for dealing with what this “difficult” person in your life has done, they would no longer be considered difficult.

In summary, never sign off on a person as “difficult.” Instead, strive to learn the skills that will help you to handle the behaviors that person exhibits that test your patience.

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