Dealing With Difficult People

The following article on dealing with difficult people will show you a fairly simple technique you can use with almost anyone. Dealing with difficult people is not as hard as you'd think, once you know where the source of the trouble really is.

NICK AND CARL went to a party together, where they saw Damon speaking loudly, saying rude things to people, and spilling red wine on the white tablecloth.

On the way home, Nick said, "What a jerk!"

"You must be talking about Damon," said Carl with a smile.

"Yeah," said Nick, shaking his head in disgust, "What an obnoxious human being!"

"Maybe he has brain damage," Carl said. But then when he noticed the look on Nick's face, he went on to explain. "I mean, maybe he's not a jerk. Maybe he fell on his head when he was a kid."

Nick looked at Carl and rolled his eyes.

Carl said, "It's not that far-fetched. I used to know this guy who was really nice but was kind of weird. One day a friend of mine said, 'That guy is weird' in a mean way (given what I knew about him). She acted as if he should stop being the way he was, as if he had a choice. She assumed he had a choice. So I told her something she didn't know. He was drafted and served in Vietnam. While he was there, he took a bullet through the head. Seriously. No joke. The dude showed me the scars. He had a scar where the bullet went in and a scar where it came out. Of course, as I told her this, her feelings about that guy changed completely."

Nick thought about this for a minute. Carl stayed quiet. He could see the wheels were turning. Then Nick said, "Did it ever occur to you that Damon might just be a jerk?" Nick knew Carl prided himself on being a positive person. Nick's attitude was that it's pretty much all hype. But Nick also admired Carl's attitude, especially under stress. Carl seemed to be able to stay calm and rational when most people would have lost their heads. But with this comment, Nick felt he had proved that yes, Damon may have had brain damage, but it is equally likely — maybe more likely — he was just a jerk.

Carl answered thoughtfully. "It is possible. But since we're making it up, there's another thing to consider."

"What do you mean we're making it up?" asked Nick.

"Well, we don't know, right?" said Carl, "We don't know if he's got brain cancer; we don't know if he is just a buffoon who enjoys bothering people or has mad cow disease. Whatever we say, we're making it up because we don't know. Therefore…" and here Carl paused, and a charming smile came across his face, "therefore, my explanation is the better one."

"How do you figure?" Nick asked.

"Because an explanation that produces anger or upset or even annoyance produces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And when you have too much of these hormones in your body or have them too often, it weakens your immune system, puts excess fat on your belly, makes you less pleasant to be around, and might even cause brain damage. So now it looks totally different. You've got the choice between two totally made-up theories to explain Damon's behavior: He's either a jerk or he has brain damage. One makes you feel dislike for him and a kind of self-righteous indignation — unpleasant feelings and at least a little stressful. The other makes you feel compassion for him and makes you feel lucky that your own brain is intact. This is a higher-quality experience. And better for your health."

Nick looked genuinely surprised and said, "You know, that actually made a lot of sense."

a change of mind

If you want to change the image on your computer screen, you don't use white-out. It would change the look of your screen, but that's not the best way to go about it. In the same way, if you want to improve your relationship with someone you dislike, don't change your behavior. Although that would change the relationship, it isn't the best way to go about it.

Your behavior toward someone is an effect, not a cause. It is the effect of the way you think about the person and what you think gets communicated one way or the other, even if you're good at hiding your feelings. If you smile and do something nice for someone you resent, somehow they aren't thrilled. Your feelings come across, no matter what your behavior looks like.

But your thinking changes your behavior — even your nonverbal behavior. So change your thoughts and let the behavior take care of itself. That is both easier and harder than it sounds. It is easier because you don't have to lift a finger. It's harder because you think you know. When you have a bad opinion about someone, to some degree your mind is closed on the subject.

But let's try it anyway. Think of a person right now who you don't get along with. Now let your imagination run away with you: Imagine some good reason they are the way they are — a reason that allows you to feel sympathy rather than resentment. Maybe he's had to endure the death of many of his closest family members and is having a difficult time dealing with it. Maybe he's under stress you don't know about. Maybe he was severely abused as a child, and while he is now impaired, he really is doing the best he can.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

You might not know this person's secret history. Maybe you never will. But you can use your imagination.

"But this is all just made up," you might be thinking, "how is that going to change my opinion?" If you are asking that question, perhaps you haven't realized that whatever you think already is made up. All you know is what the person does and what he says, right? And you don't like it. You're assuming he knows his behavior is causing you stress. And/or you're assuming he is in control of what he's doing and could change if he wanted to. In other words, you're already making it up. You've made up a reason he acts the way he does. You have explained it something like this: He is consciously making you suffer and is in control of his actions. Do you know that? No. You made it up.

So now you realize that your resentment — and the extra stress hormones it pumps into your system — are caused by a reason you made up. All I'm saying here is quit being a victim to the first reason that comes to mind, and as long as you're making something up, make up something that won't harm you and may even help you. That makes sense, doesn't it?

Come up with a good reason he is the way he is. Sympathy is better than resentment (unless the person is a sociopath, in which case you should read this). Sympathy is better for you and better for your relationship. Every time you feel resentment, think of your reason again. Consider the possibility it might be true, or something like it might be true.

Your behavior toward the person will change in subtle ways. You won't have to make an effort to change your behavior. Just be your genuine self. But your genuine self will communicate your changed mind and that will change the way the other person acts toward you. Your change of mind may break the negative pattern, and before long both of you may discover about each other that you're not so bad after all.

Make up a better reason to explain someone's behavior. Interpret the world in a way that produces good results. Know when you are guessing and guess for results.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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