How To Handle Difficult People With Grace

Eight ways to stabilize and improve the situation

We are all connected. No matter how independent we are, we still interact with coworkers, family members, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers. These relationships range from outright pleasant to downright obnoxious.

Any given relationship can vary. We’re emotional. We have good days. We have bad days. So does everybody else. When the relationship account balance is high, it feels like the good times stretch on and on. Things are clicking. You’re getting along great. Life is grand.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When the balance is low, it feels like an ordeal that’s never going to end. Transactions that would have been neutral or a minor thing start getting amplified and everything starts feeling like a huge withdrawal. Pretty soon, the account is overdrawn.

It’s easy (and extremely seductive) to put all the blame on them. “They’re so difficult to work with!” “He’s such a jerk!” “If only she’d see things my way.” The truth is, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Relationships are two-sided. You are proactive. You can choose whether you’re going to handle the situation with grace or make things worse.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Korta

How do we deal with these difficult people? The specifics of each situation will vary, but here are eight principles to apply:

  1. Embrace the differences. If you have the same end in mind and only disagree on how to get there, your disagreement may be a good thing. Diversity is the seed of synergy. Our differences make us stronger. Don’t avoid that strength just because they’re doing something differently than you would. It may be frustrating, but it’s okay.

  2. Check the mirror. Before you start assuming too much that the problem lies with them, look in the mirror. Are you doing something to contribute to the situation? Could they be finding you just as difficult to deal with? This may not be the case—sometimes it really is all on them. If there’s something you can or should change in yourself, that’s a lot easier than changing someone else. You already have buy-in from everyone involved.

  3. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Hyrum W. Smith, the founder of Franklin Quest, called this the definition of Christlike love. Separate the person from the behavior. They may be doing some terrible or annoying things, but it’s only that—it’s what they’re doing. As a person, they are trying to be their best, just like you are. Keep that in mind.

  1. Talk it out. Do they know how they’re coming across? We all have blind spots, things that we can’t see when we look in the mirror. Discuss the behavior and the effect it’s having on your relationship. Be ready to take the lead in staying calm. This is a shared problem that you’re going to solve together.

  2. Seek first to understand. In 7 Habits, Dr. Stephen Covey shares an experience he had on the subway. A young father was seemingly ignoring his children’s antics as they noisily ran around the subway car. After asking the man to get his kids under control, the father apologized. “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

    “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. …[My] heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”

    Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Emphasis in the original.

  3. Show them unconditional love. We have a basic human need to love and be loved. When that need isn’t being met, we can start to act in some really bizarre ways in an attempt to either meet that need or compensate through other needs. If we show them conditional love, we’re being manipulative and we’re going to make the situation worse. By showing unconditional love—love without strings attached—we help them feel secure, safe, and validated as a person.

  4. Serve them. Once, my roommate had done something to irritate me. Instead of growing resentful and letting it affect our friendship, I chose another response. I started getting up earlier and fixed breakfast so he could have pancakes instead of cold cereal before rushing out the door to work. If it had snowed, I went out and shoveled the walk and brushed off his car. It’s hard to stay mad at someone when you’re serving them.

  5. Impeach their opinion. Criticism is constructive when it helps you improve. If their criticism is just trying to tear you down, stop listening to them. They’re just a bucket crab. Let them wallow in their muck bucket all day. You’ve got more important things to do than validating their bad mood by letting it shape your day. Thank them for their input then move on.

If all else fails, show them the door. Their choice to be miserable doesn’t mean you have to be miserable, too. Let them go rain somewhere else. It may take the end of the relationship for them to realize the effect their actions are having on those around them.

If you’re in it for the long haul, good luck. Don’t try to “fix them” or carry all their burdens yourself. You can’t. Only God can do that. Your job is to be there for them when they need a kind word and a loving arm around them. Show them the better way.

The ideal isn’t independence, it’s interdependence. Not codependence, where we’re enabling each other’s weaknesses and the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but interdependence. We come together, bring out the best in each other, and we are vastly stronger than we are on our own.

Life’s a long journey. We progress at different speeds. You may have the greater capacity to step back and choose your response. They may want things to change as much as you do but have no idea how to make that happen. Extend to them the same grace and patience you’d want in their shoes.

Question: Who was the last difficult person you had to deal with? What did you do well? What could you have done better? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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