When you think about the difficult people in your life (we know you’re picturing someone), your thoughts can be greeted by a host of complex emotions: anger at their behavior, frustration at their unwillingness to change and an unmistakable yearning to build a healthier relationship with them. Let’s uncover how to deal with difficult people – and learn something from them along the way…
Your mum loves to get as much of the family together every year for a meal. This year, she’s rented a holiday cottage and invited everyone for the weekend. As you drive into the car park you see your brother has, yet again, parked his fancy sports car at a careless angle, taking up two spaces.
Your heckles begin to tingle in a familiar way. You walk in holding the lasagne you were asked to bring, and your aunt takes one look and makes a rather off-hand comment that it could have been bigger. You spot your mum and dad setting the table and move to say hello.
As you approach, you can feel their electric mood, both moving at 100mph and looking tense. Before you arrived you felt quite calm, but just ten minutes of being around your family has sent your blood pressure rocketing and your emotional temperature rising. Your brother walks over and calls you by your childhood nickname, which you hate, and it takes all your self-control not to hit him!
Dealing with difficult family members
‘Why is it that spending time with my family is so stressful?’ you think. ‘Why can’t I be greeted with a smile and a hug, the way I am when I visit my friends?’ The rest of the evening is punctuated with wishes that your family were different – less belligerent, more considerate, less melodramatic, more interested.
Family members are specialists at pushing your buttons (buttons are ideas or subjects that you’re particularly sensitive to). Your family have had years to find out your most sensitive buttons and hone their skills at pressing them. That’s why the spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, ‘If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.’
Can we learn from difficult people?
In Zen, we’re asked to try to see difficult people as ‘troublesome buddhas’. The word ‘buddha’ here isn’t referring to the Buddha, but to a buddha, meaning (in this sense) a teacher. A troublesome teacher can be anyone who frustrates or irritates you, or is generally difficult in some way.
Difficult people are ‘troublesome’ for the very fact that they generate challenging and uncomfortable emotions within us, which we don’t know how to deal with. As humans, we’re wired at the subconscious level to move away from discomfort and pain, and we all have different default patterns for how we do that.
How do you respond to difficult people?
According to the Buddha, craving, aversion and delusion are the three underlying causes of suffering, so it can be helpful to categorise our default patterns along these lines, especially in response to difficult people or situations…
People in the craving camp habitually (but, of course, not always) behave in a desiring, wanting or needy way around troublesome people. They typically want to appease, and may overcompensate by being exaggeratedly chatty or bubbly.
People in the aversion camp may behave by getting angry or avoiding. Anger is an essential and useful emotion. However, if left unaddressed, it can easily fester and grow to an explosive level. This makes it much harder to express safely. Thus we need to know how to manage it wisely.
The other aversion pattern is to avoid. People with this default pattern might distract themselves from the difficult feelings with any other activity or sensation, or might even deny the difficult feelings even exist.
In the example of the family gathering, wishing people were different is a form of aversion-avoidance and thus a source of suffering. We resist the way things are, when we would actually be better off letting go and letting be. Thus, one of the main things to learn from the example is the futility of wishing people were different. We must learn how to deal with difficult people in a healthier way.
Accepting difficult people for who they are
Learning to let go and accept the way people are is not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. There are two skills we need to develop. The first is to remain aware of our physical sensations (to maintain regulation) as the emotional temperature rises. This is the skill of mindfulness.
The stronger the emotional charge, the harder this becomes – which is why we need to practise regularly. But it’s crucial because awareness gives us knowledge. Furthermore, this knowledge gives us the choice to respond – and choose how to respond – rather than simply reacting impulsively.
So when your aunt makes that flippant comment about your lasagne and you feel your blood boil, it’s really important to notice and acknowledge that your blood is boiling. It’s one of the many critical signals from the body that tell you that a button is being pushed.
If you can do that, you stand a better chance of catching yourself before you snap something hurtful back at her. In time, this will help you learn how to deal with difficult people and situations in a mature, healthy manner.
Let go of who you want them to be
Personally, I remember realising how much I wanted my mum to be less self-interested, and more tactile and demonstrably loving. Despite knowing that she was disabled and understanding intellectually why she was the way she was, it didn’t stop me wanting her to be different.
I went through a long period of letting go of that wanting, which felt like grieving for the loss of the person I wanted her to be. I saw how my idea of who I wanted her to be had been preventing me from seeing her as she really was, and it was just getting in the way of our relationship. Once I let that go, I was able to love her for who she really was.
Accept the possibility that you might be wrong
In a difficult encounter, it’s so easy to fall into the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ stance. So, the second skill when learning how to deal with difficult people is to develop a willingness to entertain the possibility that you may not be wholly in the position of ‘right’. Or, there may not even be a ‘right’.
There’s always more going on than that: she might also be feeling stressed out by the family gathering. Or, she might be playing out a behaviour pattern that she learned as a young child to protect herself from being emotionally hurt.
When we realise that, no matter how deeply we wish for it, we can’t change other people, there can be a deep letting go and lightening of our load.
And when we can see past the difficult behaviour to the person behind it – a person with their own suffering, habits and past experiences – our stance can soften and compassion, tolerance and forgiveness can arise.
This is what it means by seeing a difficult person as a troublesome buddha. Yes, they’re troublesome, but they can teach us so much about ourselves. They highlight our patterns and tendencies, where we stiffen and hold on, where our sensitive buttons are, and how we can learn to avoid reacting impulsively and respond more wisely.
Know when to set boundaries
Make no mistake, sometimes the wisest choice when figuring out how to deal with difficult people is to assert a strong boundary and say ‘no’. Or, sometimes it’s to simply move away and get some space. It’s not about grinning and bearing it, tolerating more than we can cope with.
It’s never too late to carve out new behavioural grooves and start shifting your attitude towards difficult people. We absolutely can change our attitudes, beliefs and actions, and learn to respond to difficult people with more wisdom and clarity. So, go on, give it a go.
How to deal with difficult people: 5 practices to help
1. Consider what you can learn
Set an intention to see difficult people as your teachers. Even holding the concept of a ‘troublesome buddha’ in mind can make a big difference to the outcome of a difficult encounter.
2. Notice body sensations
Cultivate awareness and sensitivity to body sensations when the emotional intensity is low and distractions are minimal. For example, you could try regular practice of an embodied discipline such as yoga or mindfulness.
Then practice staying aware of how you feel in increasingly emotional situations. Concentrating on how you physically feel will help you avoid getting caught up in the complicated storylines of who did what and what might happen next.
3. Accept that you might not be ‘right’
Watch for those moments when you fall into the ‘You’re wrong and I’m right’ mindset. Develop a willingness to entertain the possibility that you may not be wholly in the position of ‘right’.
Alternatively, there may not even be a ‘right’. Remember, the difficulty lies in the relationship between the you and the other – not just in the other.
4. See the person behind the difficulties
When figuring out how to deal with difficult people, try to look past the troublesome behaviour and see the person behind it. Appreciate that we all have our default behaviour patterns, which arise because of our individual past experiences.
5. Repair your relationships
There is no correct response to any situation. Sometimes patience and tolerance are important, sometimes boundaries are. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we mess up and say or do something hurtful.
Remember, repair is always more important than the rupture, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to practise self-compassion and forgive ourselves.