How to Deal with Difficult People

Do you find yourself constantly drained from having to deal with difficult people at work or at home? Are you fed up trying to reason with people who seem as unmovable as a mountain or are always expressing their anger? Did you know you can learn ways to protect yourself, get what you need, and control your own negative emotions? With counseling and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), you can learn how to deal with difficult people. Here are five DBT skills to try the next time you must deal with these challenging situations.

The Telltale Traits of Difficult People

The characteristics of a difficult person can depend on the type of person they are in normal circumstances. Remember, sometimes people have difficult personalities, and sometimes a person is difficult because of circumstances. Perpetually problematic people often have one or more of the following traits:

Aggression: they antagonize, pick fights, are hostile, project emotions, are contrarian, and refuse to compromise or find a solution.

Callousness: they lack empathy, sympathy, and self-awareness.

Arrogance: they are narcissistic and hyperbolic, generally exaggerating their situation and crisis, and are reluctant to see other sides or perspectives of the issue at hand.

Dishonest: they are manipulative, play the victim, are suspicious, forgetful, unclear in communication, and sometimes lie or lie by omission.

In order to understand how to deal with difficult people, you need to know the truth:

  1. You can’t change a person’s behavior.
  2. The only way to deal with difficult people is to change your own behaviors.

A therapist trained in teaching DBT can provide you with techniques to alter your own responses to life’s challenges.

If you think you might be a difficult person, a therapist can help you, too!

What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a talk therapy and education program based partially on the techniques of cognitive behavior therapy. DBT focuses on teaching real-world applicable skills while acknowledging that life is complex, emotions can be contradictory, and feelings can fluctuate. Dialectical behavior therapy offers excellent training on how to deal with difficult people because it focuses on social relationships and emotion management.

DBT is divided into four focus areas:

  1. Emotion Regulation
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Distress Tolerance
  4. Interpersonal Effectiveness

The skills learned in each of these four components can be applied to encounters with those hard-to-deal-with people.

5 DBT Skills for Dealing with Difficult People

The next time you find yourself in a situation in which dealing with a difficult person is unavoidable, try using these five dialectical behavior skills.

Skill 1: Validation

Almost all humans have a hidden need for wanting to be understood and accepted. This is called “validation.” Validation is a powerful tool for creating empathy, sympathy, and a bond with people. It lets the other person know that you are listening and that you are trying to understand their point of view. It is not validating the unvalidatable or agreeing that what they are saying or doing is accurate.

Validation reduces anger, negative reactions, and pressure to “win” the argument.”  Examples include:

  • Repeating what the other person is saying to validate their emotions: “It sounds like you are mad at me because you believed I lied to you” or, “It sucks that it happened to you.”
  • Admitting your mistakes: “I understand that not taking the garbage out after I told you I would has upset you.”
  • Understanding their core message: “I think what you’re saying is that you want me to finish my to-do list by the end of the day. Is that correct?”

Skill 2: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is more than meditation. It is the act of consciously keeping your mind in the present moment without judgment, which gives you a better chance to control your reactivity and reduce suffering and fear.  Many times, when we deal with difficult people, we allow ourselves to operate on “auto-pilot.” If we are mindful of our feelings and emotions while dealing with an arduous situation, we are more likely to achieve a better outcome.

Here are a few ways to deal with difficult people using mindfulness:

  • Come back to the present moment by focusing on the sights, smells, and sounds around you.
  • Take deep breaths to control physical responses and stay calm.
  • Be aware of rising emotions and let them go by like clouds in the sky.
  • Allow yourself to be silent so you can really listen to the other person.
  • Be conscious of the tone and volume of your voice.
  • Be aware when the situation becomes too much to handle and you need to take a break.

Skill 3: Cope Ahead

DBT teaches emotional regulation, and one of the skills learned is known as “cope ahead.” This skill allows us to prepare for confrontations with difficult people while helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Coping ahead requires us to vividly, fully imagine and rehearse encounters we are likely to have. Here are the steps to using cope ahead skills:

  1. Fully describe the situation. Let’s say you have a difficult coworker who doesn’t do his job and is unpleasant to be around. You are having a meeting with him in two days to discuss his behavior, and you use the cope ahead skill to prepare. Write down or think about all the facts of the situation: how many times he has called in, shown up late, or found checking his phone instead of taking care of customers.
  2. Decide on the skills you will use to deal with this difficult conversation. Maybe you will focus on mindfulness, validation, and active listening. Write out in detail how you will cope with your emotions and urges as well as his emotions and outbursts.
  3. Imagine the scene as vividly as you can. The more you can feel the possible emotions, like anxiety, the more prepared you will be if you encounter them.
  4. Rehearse the encounter. This may seem awkward at first, but write down or imagine how each part of that meeting could go. Rehearse your actions, your reactions to his potential emotions, how to cope with new problems that may arise or worse-case scenarios. Immerse yourself in ‘how to deal with difficult people' skills and feel the emotions that occur.
  5. Rehearse relaxing after the situation. Emotion regulation is important before, during, and after each difficult situation.

Skill 4: G.I.V.E. F.A.S.T.

One of the tools taught in DBT under the interpersonal effectiveness component is G.I.V.E. F.A.S.T. In all the ways we are learning how to deal with difficult people, this skill is the best way to de-escalate intense situations and help you keep your self-respect. G.I.V.E. F.A.S.T. stands for:

G: (Be) Gentle

When having a conversation with a hard-to-handle person, avoid physical and verbal attacks, rising to their level of emotion, judgments and use of the word “should”, threats, and mockery.

I: (Act) Interested

Listen actively and keep your face soft and approachable. Try to see things from their point of view. Don’t interrupt. Try to maintain eye contact and be patient.

V: Validate

As previously discussed, validation is key when dealing with overly emotional and problematic people. Use both words and actions to convey that you understand, or are trying to understand, the other person’s perspective. Their feelings are as valid as your own.

E: Easy Manner

Deescalate by using a little bit of humor. Smile if it seems appropriate. Keep your manner light and easy. Be softer in your tone and words. Try to be diplomatic.

F: (Be) Fair

Be fair to the other person and yourself. It is important to validate your emotions and experiences too. Try to treat both yourself and the difficult person equally by respecting boundaries. It is okay to set limits.

A: (No) Apologies

Don’t apologize for asking for something that you need or for just existing at all. You are allowed to have your own beliefs and opinions and to disagree with others. Remember, don’t validate the invalid.

S: Stick To Your Values

Know your own values and don’t abandon them to placate a difficult person. You have your values and integrity for a reason, and you don’t have to give those up because someone else is becoming a thorn in your side.

T: (Be) Truthful

Dishonesty makes people difficult to deal with, which is why you want to be truthful. Don’t exaggerate or make excuses.

Skill 5: Radical Acceptance

You know the truth: you can’t change the behavior of a difficult person or the facts of a difficult situation. You can, however, practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is “...the complete and total acceptance of reality. This means that you accept the reality of a situation in your mind, heart, and body. You stop fighting against the reality and accept it.”

This acceptance of truth does not mean you like the situation or condone the behaviors of others. It simply means, “it is what it is at the moment.”

Here is a possible scenario on how to deal with difficult people using radical acceptance:

  • The situation: Every holiday, my uncle comes to dinner and inevitably brings up unpopular political beliefs and racial comments as loudly as possible.

That is what happens, and it just is, whether you like it or not. Now that you have accepted this inevitability, you can focus on other skills:

  • Coping ahead: Write down the emotions and urges you have when you are around your uncle. Practice how you will react and whether you can avoid him.
  • Validation and G.I.V.E. F.A.S.T.: If he is unavoidable, you can still validate his feelings and your own. “Uncle Doug, I can hear that these issues are very important to you. However, I find it uncomfortable when you express these opinions during dinner.”
  • Mindfulness: Be aware of your body’s clues. Are you present with yourself and the moment? Are you getting tense and angry? Mindfulness will help bring you back to the skills you have learned.

At some point in our lives, we will have to deal with difficult people. We can make these encounters more pleasant, goal-oriented, and safer by using skills learned from dialectical behavior therapy. Contact the mental health professionals at Goodman Psychologist Associates if you want to learn more ways to deal with difficult people or if would like to address other issues. We can help you live life to the fullest!

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Roy .K

7 years ago

Wow what good timing. I know expressing the emotional pain I was going through not necessarily with anger, or maybe even with some anger, Is ok if I am experiencing someone that is causing harm to me. But as far as my job is concerned it is still considered an outburst by my management and not accepted in my workplace.

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