How to Deal with a “Difficult” Person

Is there someone you avoid interacting with at all costs? Here, we discuss how to rethink interactions with “difficult” people in your life.

Kara Large

Is there someone in your life you dread seeing? Do you do everything you can to avoid seeing this person?

Maybe this person is in your family. You only have to see them during the holidays and occasional family gatherings. The idea of having to sit next to them at the dinner table makes you uneasy. When you see their car in the driveway, you want to turn around.

As you read this, does someone in your life immediately come to mind?

In writing this, I can immediately think of several people in my life I previously deemed too difficult to deal with. My brother and I would do everything we could to not have to sit next to our difficult family members or get trapped in a conversation with them. We’d turn it into a game of who could avoid the difficult person the longest. And we’d try to engage each other in scenarios that would leave us stuck with the difficult person.

But after going through The Macklin Method Workshop, my perspective on dealing with difficult people - and people in general - changed. I now choose to see people as trying their best now. And I want to be able to accept them for who they are, not deny them basic human interaction because I used to find them difficult to deal with.

There are people I thought I would never choose to start a conversation with. Now I’m looking forward to engaging with them over the holidays. In this article, I’ll discuss changing your understanding of difficult people, so you can open up to forming connections with people you actively avoided in the past.

What Makes Someone a Difficult Person?

There are probably many reasons you might label someone as a difficult person. Some of those reasons could be completely valid. Maybe a person has caused you harm in the past, and you don’t want to be around them. Not only does their presence remind you of what happened, but they haven’t taken any steps to reconcile their actions or made moves to rebuild trust with you.

If someone has hurt you, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to be around them. And this isn’t necessarily the scenario we’re discussing here. It is important for you to decide what you will and won’t accept for yourself, especially in relating with others. 

If you have decided someone is difficult to deal with, they might have earned this label because they are contrary. No matter what you say, they have to disagree. It feels like they are always oppositional with you and others.

You might also consider someone difficult if they have different opinions than you do. 

Or maybe you’ve decided someone is difficult because they are irritating to be around. You feel tense when you’re with them. Just their presence annoys you. You can’t necessarily trace why you feel this way. You just know you get exasperated when this person is in the same room as you.

You Get to Decide if Someone is a Difficult Person

This week kicks off the holiday season, so I have been reflecting on past holidays and spending time with family. There are several people in my family I have labeled as difficult in the past. Even with all the work I have done to evolve and be better in my interactions with others, I’ve been thinking about how the real test comes when interacting with other people and particularly with family. 

There is a teacher I love and admire, Ram Dass. Ram Dass (his given name was Richard Alpert) taught meditation and also gave talks about love and kindness and compassion, and just how to be a better human. There's a story about him I love related to dealing with difficult people. To thousands and thousands of people in the world he was this prolific teacher. But when he walked in the door of his parent’s house, he was just Richard. He would go on to explain that his greatest opportunities for learning came when he was with his family. 

If you're like me, there is probably at least one family member that maybe you struggle with connecting with. Or there's a family member that just really knows how to push your buttons. 

It wasn’t until I started working at MacklinConnection that I learned a new way to approach these situations with difficult people. The key for me was understanding that I don’t see the world as it actually is. I can only see the world through my own interpretation of it. Everything I experience is through my own lens. Ron Macklin calls this “the story in your head.”

We have a story in our head about everyone we interact with. We don’t see them as they are. We see them through our own filters. The magic of this is that you can change your stories about the world and other people at any time. You get to decide how you choose to see someone. Even if you saw someone as difficult in the past, you can decide that, going forward, you will see them differently.

We have a lot of stories about who the people in our family are to us. These are some of the oldest stories that we have. So it can be really easy to feel those stories coming out when you're thinking about spending time with someone in your family who feels difficult to deal with. 

For the person that I dread spending time with in my family, I have seen them as being difficult since I was a kid. I did not enjoy being around this person when I was a child and that carried over as an adult. If I saw this person out in public I would hide to avoid having to interact with them. Even at family functions I would duck into the bathroom to avoid a conversation with this person. I have years and years worth of stories in my head about how difficult this person is to be around. 

But I made a decision to see this person through fresh eyes. I am choosing to meet this person with love and kindness. And I also understand that this person has their own stories about life. I recognize that they made up a story that nobody loved them when they were very young. And this story colors all of their interactions.

Where I chose to create a story of this person being difficult, I can now see that this person has their own story about being unlovable. I want them to feel loved, and I am choosing to create that story in my interactions with them.

This is changing the way I see the holidays. I'm not dreading seeing this person. I am genuinely excited to show up as my best self and see them in a new way.

Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

If you decide you want to change the way you see difficult people in your life, here are a few tips to help with the interaction. 

  1. Decide what is acceptable to you before engaging with someone. 

At MacklinConnection, we call this your Stand because you are choosing what you will and will not stand for. It is important to develop your Stand before engaging with others so you don’t lose sight of what is acceptable to you in interactions. When you don’t know what is and isn’t acceptable for you when you engage with other people, it can be easier to neglect your own limits. If you go into an interaction with a firm understanding of what you will and won’t stand for, you’re less likely to walk away from the encounter feeling like you abandoned what is important to you.

  1. Set an intention for the encounter.

Before you engage with the other person, decide how you want to be in the interaction and say it out loud. When you say something out loud, your brain doesn’t recognize that what is being said is coming from you. Your brain just hears a message and begins to collect the data. What this practice can look like for you is saying, “Today, I choose to be understanding and compassionate.” You can choose to be whatever you want and say it out loud to yourself. Even if it feels silly at first, it will help shape the story you create for yourself about who you are and how you show up in the world. 

  1. Remember, they are trying their best.  

This goes along with setting your intention for yourself and how you show up. You can also decide how you want to see the other person. Just like you have decided they are “difficult” in the past, you can now decide that they are trying their best. You can decide to see them as loving and compassionate. Or you can decide that they are funny and fun to be around. You get to choose what lens you will see them through. Can you choose to see them with kindness? Can you choose to be open to creating a new idea of who they are for you? Wouldn’t you want someone to do this for you, if you were seen as difficult in the past? 

Deal with a Difficult Person by Choosing to See Them Differently

If there is a difficult person in your life that you dread, you could find yourself avoiding gatherings where they might show up. And, in avoiding them, you might miss out on meaningful experiences.

Instead of focusing on having a positive interaction, you replay old experiences and deny yourself the opportunity to create new ones.

It might seem easy to write someone off as difficult and prevent yourself from engaging with them. But you could be costing yourself fulfilling experiences - with others AND with that person you’re avoiding. 

I have been where you are. You are not alone. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. Because I’ve been where you are, I know how much energy it takes to avoid seeing someone. I know how it can weigh on your mind. I know how much thought I would put into making up scenarios in my mind about interacting with someone I didn’t want to see.

Wouldn’t life be easier if you could reframe your understanding of the difficult people in your life? Wouldn’t it be more rewarding to see them as someone who is trying their best so you don’t have to bend over backwards to avoid sitting next to them at the dinner table?

I know I’m looking forward to a holiday season where I don’t have to manipulate the seating arrangements to avoid someone. I’m looking forward to connecting with the people I once labeled difficult. By choosing to change my idea of the difficult people in my life, I can see them as doing the best they can, and enjoy the time I get to spend with them.

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