This afternoon I took my son, Mac, to the community playground. As I was chatting with another parent, I looked over and saw Mac’s eyes welling up with tears. I ran over to him and asked what was wrong, but all he could do at that moment was quiver his bottom lip. So I turned to a young teenage girl swinging on the swings and asked her to tell me what happened. She explained that two bullies had been teasing Mac and calling him names for the past few minutes. “I told them to stop,” she said. “But they kept calling him smelly and telling all the other little kids that he pooped in his pants. And then all the other little kids stopped playing with him. Those bullies are so mean!”
I felt my heart aching and racing at the same time. “Where are those bullies now?” I asked.
Mac suddenly spoke up. “They ran away when I started crying,” he said through his tears.
I thanked the teenage girl, picked Mac up, and carried him to a nearby picnic table. Initially, even though I was fuming inside, I just wanted to cheer Mac up. So I quickly told him a few of my favorite kid-friendly jokes until, thankfully, I was able to get a genuine giggle out of him. Then I pulled two dark chocolate bars out of my pocket, handed one to him, and said, “Cheers!” He smiled and gave me a huge hug. And I relaxed a bit, knowing that he was sincerely feeling better.
A few minutes later I asked Mac what bothered him most about what had happened on the playground. Even though he’s only three years old, I know Mac is a tough kid who’s incredibly well spoken and mature for his age. He usually doesn’t cry, or even pay much attention, when random bullies start misbehaving and acting foolishly.
“I don’t smell and I didn’t poop in my pants,” he explained. “But those two mean bullies lied about me, and everybody looked at me with a yucky face and believed them. Then nobody wanted to play with me; I had no friends.”
Again, tears started welling up in his eyes. And again, my heart began to ache and race. I could feel Mac’s pain. I’ve certainly felt his kind of pain in my own life too. And just as I was about to tell Mac it was time to teach those two bullies a lesson they’d never forget, I remembered the words of my late grandmother. Many moons ago, when I was going through a similar situation in elementary school, she told me, “Those bullies just want to make you feel bad all day long. That’s their goal. And if you continue to feel bad about their foolish antics, they win. However, if you let go of their foolish antics, and instead focus on feeling good and helping other people feel good, you win. There’s always a winner in these situations. And it’s always your choice.”
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I did my best to gracefully reiterate my grandmother’s wisdom to Mac. And he sat quietly and listened intently, as his tears gradually dried up. Then he gave me another huge hug and said, “Thank you, Daddy. I feel good now. I win!”
The Art of Handling Difficult People
Regardless of our age or social status, there will always be some difficult people out there who want nothing more than to bully and belittle us. Sometimes they’re colleagues at work, sometimes they’re people in our neighborhoods, sometimes they’re those mean kids on the playground…
And just as difficult people will always exist in the world, so too will our power to choose how we respond to them. Do we let them make their pain our own? Or do we choose to transform that pain into personal growth and strength? Do we let them win? Or do we choose to win?
It’s hard to make wise choices in the heat of the moment. But when we choose to win and transform pain into personal growth and strength, we aren’t just improving our own lives, we’re also improving the lives of the people we love, and the people who look up to us.
With that said, however, sometimes handling difficult people—and “winning”—is, well, difficult! Angel and I have worked with hundreds of course students and coaching clients over the past decade who were struggling through this very predicament. And gradually, we guided them through several smart yet simple strategies that work wonders. I want to briefly review a few of these strategies with you today, in hopes that you find value in them too…
- Practice detaching yourself from other people’s bias opinions. — You may not be able control all the things people say and do, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. The way people treat you is their problem, how you respond internally is yours. What you need to remember is that the things people say and do to you is much more about them, than you. People’s reactions to you are about their perspectives, biases and past experiences. Whether people think you’re amazing, or believe you’re disgusting, again, is more about them and how they view the world. Now, I’m not suggesting we should be self-indulged narcissists and ignore all the opinions and commentary we receive from others. I’m simply saying that incredible amounts of hurt, disappointment and sadness in our lives come directly from our tendency to take things too personally. In most cases it’s far more productive and healthy to let go of other people’s good or bad opinions of you, and to operate with your own intuition and insight as your guide.
- Wish them well and move forward with your day. — Don’t lower your standards, but do remember that removing your expectations of others is the best way to avoid being disappointed by them. Realize that there’s no reason to expect others to treat you the way you treat them—not everyone has the same heart as you. Meditate on that. Let it sink in. Ultimately, the real test is being kind to unkind people. And yes, you can always stand tall and be sincerely kind to people you strongly disagree with. Remind yourself that you never know what someone has been through in their life, or what they’re going through today. Just do your best to be kind, generous, and respectful, no mater what. Truth be told, all the hardest, coldest people you meet were once as soft as a baby. And that’s the tragedy of living. So when people are rude and difficult, be mindful—be your best. Give those around you the “break” that you hope the world will give you on your own “bad day” and you will never, ever regret it.
- Model the behavior you want to see. — When someone insists on foisting their hostility and drama on you, be an example of a pure existence. Ignore their outlandish antics and focus on compassion. Communicate and express yourself from a place of peace, from a place of love, with the best intentions. Use your voice for good, to inspire, to encourage, to educate, and to spread the type of behavior you want to see in others. This, of course, is much easier said than done. It takes long-term practice. Even with decades of practice behind me, I sometimes catch myself being rude to people who are rude to me—I behave badly because they behaved badly. And even if the situation is absolutely their fault, my behavior only escalates the situation. So I do my best to take a deep breath and set a good example of how to deal with anger and frustration. I try to be patient and compassionate with them—to demonstrate a positive way of handling difficult people. And doing so always helps me make progress, even if it’s not instantaneous.
- Take positive control of negative conversations. – It’s okay to change the topic, talk about something positive, or steer conversations away from pity parties, drama, and self-absorbed sagas. Be willing to disagree with difficult people and deal with the consequences. Some people really don’t recognize their own difficult tendencies or their inconsiderate behavior. You can actually tell a person, “I feel like you ignore me until you need something.” You can also be honest if their overly negative attitude is what’s driving you away: “I’m trying to focus on positive things. What’s something good we can talk about?” It may work and it may not, but your honesty will help ensure that any communication that continues forward is built on mutually beneficial ground. (Angel and I build honest, mindful communication rituals with our students in the “Love and Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
- Proactively establish healthy and reasonable boundaries. — Practice becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Note the times and circumstances when you’re resentful of fulfilling someone else’s needs. Gradually build boundaries by saying no to gratuitous requests that cause resentfulness in you. Of course, this will be hard at first because it may feel a bit selfish. But if you’ve ever flown on a plane, you know that flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to others, even their own children. Why? Because you cannot help others if you’re incapacitated. In the long run, proactively establishing and enforcing healthy and reasonable boundaries with difficult people will be one of the most charitable things you can do for yourself and those you care about. These boundaries will foster and preserve the best of you, so you can share the best of yourself with the people who matter most, not just the difficult ones who try to keep you tied up.
- Make extra time for yourself. — Difficult people who wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions are obviously hard to handle. They want others to join their 24/7 pity party so they can feel better about themselves. And you may feel pressured to listen to their complaints simply because you don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a compassionate ear and getting sucked into their emotional drama. If you are forced to live or work with a difficult person, then make sure you get enough alone time to relax, rest, and recuperate. Having to play the role of a “focused, rational adult” in the face of relentless moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, their toxic attitude can infect you. So remember that even people with legitimate problems and clinical illnesses can still comprehend that you have needs as well, which means you can politely excuse yourself when you need to. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of our book.)
- Let them know that you, respectfully, do not care. — This one is essentially a last resort. If you’ve tried your best to communicate respectfully with a difficult person, or to gracefully distance yourself from them, but they insist on following you around and attacking you for whatever reason, it’s time to speak up and tell them that their words are meaningless. In such situations, I challenge you to make this your lifelong motto: “I respectfully do not care.” Say it to anyone who relentlessly passes public judgment on something you strongly believe in or something that makes you who you are. And remind yourself that you did nothing wrong. Some people will inevitable judge you no matter what you do, and that’s OK. You affected their life; don’t let them affect yours.
Afterthoughts… On Good People & Setting An Example
It doesn’t help to tame all the difficult people in your life if you’re not ready to foster genuine relationships with good people. On occasion, you may find that the difficulties between you and someone else drain away rather quickly when you start being less difficult yourself. Honestly, I’m not trying to preach; this is something I’m working on in my own life—it’s a lifelong practice.
Make that first call, offer a genuine compliment, schedule a fun outing with another person’s preferences in mind, send that ridiculously funny text message for no real reason—there are tons of ways to nurture relationships with good people who are worth the extra effort and sacrifice. And when good people and good intentions surround you, it’s amazing how unnecessary pettiness, toxicity, and difficulty simply evaporates from your conscious awareness.
This really goes back to the point above on modeling the behavior you want to see. Just as light will dispel darkness, your light can be a shining example to everyone around you…including those who mean well but don’t realize their difficult tendencies. And even though you’ll likely need to limit your exposure to some people, don’t underestimate the possibility that your example may influence them for the greater good, one way or the other, in the long run.
How have difficult people affected your life and relationships? Do you have any additional thoughts or insights to share? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a reply below.