Dealing with Difficult People

March 29, 2012 by Daniel Collinsworth

We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.
Sam Keen

We all come across folks who are difficult, irrational or unkind. Our first instinct may be to mirror the person, countering their negative attitude with one of our own. It's normal to feel angry, hurt, and frustrated. What's worse, is the time we spend afterward thinking about how we were treated, perhaps staying emotionally charged for hours after the encounter.

The purpose of this article isn't to show you how to turn a difficult person into someone easier to deal with, although that can certainly happen. The point here is to offer a deeper look at what is happening within you when you experience a difficult encounter, and to present a few ways of handling it in a more favorable way.

A very useful lesson is taught to us by the Buddha, who was approached by a man who verbally abused him, insulted him and offended him. Buddha was unmoved, asking the man one simple question:

"When someone offers you a gift and you decline to accept it, to whom then does it belong?"

Here we realize that the way someone treats you is their choice — the way you receive and react to that treatment is your choice. Still, there's an emotional charge that comes along with any difficult encounter, and it can be really hard not to be driven by it. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you stay centered in the midst of this:

  1. The way someone treats you is a projection of what's happening inside of them. Even though it feels like it's being directed at you, it's not yours, so don't take it on as yours. We can never know the heart of a person — what pain or stress they themselves might be experiencing in that moment. Getting caught up and identifying with their drama isn't beneficial. Instead, take a deep breath, create space, and let their stuff be their stuff. You don't have to get drawn into it.

  2. Negative emotions are always the expression of a need that isn't being met. And even though you may not be able to fulfill that need, you can still choose to act with compassion. Perhaps you are both frustrated in dealing with each other. Perhaps the other person feels threatened or offended by you (even if that isn't your intention). You always have a choice: You can take the easy road and let your negative emotions drive you, or you can take a mental step back and become the observer of your emotions. Then, you can act consciously.

  3. Instead of mirroring their negativity, be an ambassador of grace. Forget the idea of "killing them with kindness", which I believe is nothing more than a passive aggressive way of mirroring their negativity. Instead, offer a word of kindness or encouragement. Offer a sincere compliment. A kind, gentle word can immediately transform a bad attitude and, in some cases, it can transform a life. I can vividly remember times when I was shown grace that was totally unwarranted. It opened my heart, and it changed me.

    Sometimes, showing grace can be as simple as just letting something go — resisting the urge to call someone out, or point out what they're doing. Letting it go can be immensely transformative for you as well as for them — see, most of the time, folks know when they're acting out of line. When they see that you are choosing to let it go instead of firing back at them, it clears a space for them to rethink their own behavior. Sometimes, this little bit of space is all they need.

Remember, it's not about teaching them a lesson or ensuring that they understand the folly of their ways. It's about you rising above the situation and walking the path of your own growth and development. If your light just happens to have a transformative effect on the other person, well that's pretty awesome, don't you think?

Last But Not Least...

None of us are rational and fair 100% of the time. We all have moments when we just don't have the patience or the mental/physical fortitude to treat others nicely. Ask yourself how you'd like to be treated during times like these, and keep it in mind.

There are many layers to us humans, far more than the ones that bubble up to the surface from time to time. Let's practice being a mirror of the highest potential in each other. Showing each other that, despite bad attitudes and poor ways of communicating, we still see a heart that beats deep inside, a heart that longs for peace and unconditional love.

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