Hi, my name is Karen and I am not perfect.
I have hurt people and I was not always my best possible self. I have cut in line at a store; I got annoyed by people and showed them. I have had a bad day and did not always show gratitude and love toward people who mean the world to me.
Get my point? All of us can be difficult to deal with at one time or another.
However, if you catch yourself in those moments and take a second to rethink your next reaction, then congratuations! You are practicing something wonderful, the self-growth eliciting and best self-development tool out there called self-reflection.
According to studies, over 70 percent of senior executives lack the ability to self-reflect. Now imagine how many people you know or have heard about over the years. I’ve met quite a few of them: “the Screamer,” “the Enterpainer,” “the Black or White Thinker,” “the Jealous Bee,” “Low Esteem Bob,” “the Suggestions Resistant,” “the Sufferer,” just to name a few. Any of them sound familiar?
If so, here are six ways to deal with difficult people:
Try to look behind their behavior. For example, if you have a boss or partner who is constantly yelling and losing his/her temper, then remind yourself that behind every behavior is a purpose. According to Adlerian Psychology (which I am trained in), someone who “has a temper” could have at least three purposes. First, “I’m demanding my own way.” Second, “I’m right and you are wrong, and how dare you think I’m wrong!” And lastly, “I only want my way because I happen to be right!” Also, yelling might have been a way that this person learned to get his or her way in the past? See? This person’s anger you are dealing with has probably very little or nothing to do with you.
2. Put it into perspective.
Emotions are stronger drivers of behavior than logic. Sometimes a person may have had a bad morning or day, is not feeling well, or has had a fight with their partner or friend. Or perhaps you hit a sensitive spot of that person without even knowing or realizing. You have probably had a day like this before, too. I am not saying that this is an excuse for them being difficult or hurting your feelings. However, it should help you to put it into perspective and develop empathy for them (more on this below).
You should also keep in mind that there are two kinds of emotions: primary and secondary emotions. A primary emotion is what the person actually feels and the secondary emotion refers to what the person shows on the outside to others. For example, when your boss is yelling, his primary emotion might be fear of losing control over a business deal, feeling helpless, not supported enough, or even inadequate. However, he shows those feelings (secondary emotions) through anger and screaming at his employees.
3. Develop empathy for them.
Again, difficult people aren’t necessarily trying to be difficult. They just may be unaware of how they come across. Self-reflection isn’t an easy process and requires a lot of honesty and openness to criticism. For example, an abrasive boss is probably not aware of the outcomes of her behavior. She most likely simply doesn’t know that her employees will feel uncomfortable and hurt, which will eventually turn into low productivity and work-satisfaction levels, as well as high sick leave rates, or even turnovers. Remember the primary and secondary emotions, and try to empathize with their stand point.
4. Stand up for your health.
Have you ever felt pain or physically sick as soon as you entered the building of your office, or even when you just thought about your job or people there? Have you developed a serious (chronic) disease like stomach pain, nausea, anxiety, panic attacks etc., since you started that job, but no doctor could really pinpoint where your pain was coming from after countless tests? Listen to yourself. This pain in your body or this illness could be just in your head, serving the purpose of letting you have “an excuse” to stay at home or avoid this stressful, uncomfortable situation at work. Don’t let psychosomatic symptoms mask the underlying problem. During my time as a career counselor, I have had clients who had to change careers because they simply could not physically stay in their jobs. Your body and mind are strongly connected, so please make sure to take care of both.
This is the toughest part, right? How can I possibly confront my boss or loved one without getting fired or broken up with? Talking about challenges and feelings requires a lot of courage and guts because we risk getting hurt or hurting others. However, think about the pain you feel when mistreated. Like I mentioned before, sometimes the other person doesn’t even realize that he/she is hurting your feelings. So try to understand and empathize with the other person, self-reflect, organize your thoughts, take your courage in both hands, and confront (one on one) that person in a neutral environment. Use “I” statements instead of “You must/should/need to.” For example, with a calm and neutral voice, start your sentence with: “I have the impression,” or “I have a feeling that ..”. Give the other person the chance to describe his or her impressions as well. You will see that the other person will be more open and less defensive.
As Marianne Williamson put it: “People hear you on the level you speak to them from. Speak from your heart, and they will hear with theirs.” Take heart, show yourself respect and stand up for yourself.
6. See each of them as your teacher
This is something I have learned over the years. There is a reason for each person that enters your life at one point or another. Think about the people cutting ahead of you in line at a grocery store, or people who deceived you in one way or another, or criticized you no matter what you did. What do you think they are supposed to teach you? I’d say patience, understanding, and confidence. What about your friend/partner/boss who is mistreating you? I’d say courage, empathy, and forgiveness. Look at all your experiences with difficult people as opportunities for personal growth, self-discovery and development. And keep in mind that you are not perfect and always easy to deal with either. But hey, nobody is perfect. As mentioned in my other essay, there is no such thing like perfection, and that’s good! Embrace your individuality!
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Karen Naumann earned her M.A. in Counseling & Organizational Psychology in Chicago, IL. After living in the USA for six years, she decided to move back home to Germany in 2012. She’s a strong believer in the mind-body connection and looks at each individual as being unique. Karen is a health-nut, and passionate about traveling, cultures, languages, healthy nutrition, as well as practicing yoga and Pilates. Her goal is to inspire others, and to share the importance and beauty of life with positive thinking even in difficult times.
Ed: Brianna Bemel