24 Tips for Dealing With Difficult People: A Student’s Guide
Dealing with difficult people is a skill set that you should be working on long before you get to college. If you arrive on campus without it, you’ll get a trial by fire. Professors, study group partners, other classmates, your first really serious relationships—all of this is in your future, and you need a constructive way of working through situations that involve difficult people. To assist you in this education, we have put together a quick list of 24 tips that can help you not only in dealing with difficult people, but also in thriving with those interactions. Let’s get started!
Dealing with Difficult People Tip 1. Limit their time.
The first thing that you want to do when dealing with difficult people is to limit the time that you give them. This can be easier said than done when said person is of a particularly strong personality type, but some of the other tips will help you to disengage.
That said, before moving on, let’s highlight the mindset that you need to be in before resorting to this tip. You are the owner of your time. You choose to work at a certain place, take a certain class, or go to a certain party. While peer pressure does exist, others cannot step into your skin and direct your body to spend time with people and in places that you wish to avoid. Keep repeating this mantra to yourself: there are always options, there are always options, there are always options .…
2. Control you.
It can be difficult controlling your temper or enthusiasm when you have that perfect comeback that’ll really put Mr. Difficult Person in his/her place. Unfortunately, this temper/enthusiasm can act as a gateway to mind control to the truly skilled manipulators. The moment you let emotions speak louder than substance, is the moment that they have won.
Remember that you cannot control the way someone is going to treat you, but you can absolutely control your response to it. If you run into a professor in college who says something you disagree with—it happens a LOT—resist the urge. These people already have control over your grades. Don’t give them control over your temperament! But even if the difficult person in question isn’t in a position to fail you, hold onto it anyway.
3. Don’t try to be a convincer.
Most of the time difficult people are not looking to be convinced of something. They already know what they think, and they’ll stand by it even in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary. The moment that you start trying to convince them of the truth is the moment that you’ve opened the door for them to take control.
Particularly when you’re younger, there is a competitive urge to be right. Instead of giving into that, realize the freedom that comes with letting people think what they’re going to think. Allowing alternate viewpoints to coexist with your own isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s the pinnacle of maturity.
4. Slow your speech.
No, we don’t mean to talk slower, but to be slower to talk. The true talent of difficult people is in their ability to induce emotional reactions from those with whom they are interacting. When you take the time to think about your responses, you spend more time in control of yourself, and that leads to more thoughtful responses.
It also enables you to know what is worth responding to and what isn’t—more on that in the next entry—and it creates a more persuasive argument, both to the difficult person and any others who may be listening. It is far better to stay silent on a topic than to engage the difficult person.
5. Pick battles.
Picking your battles can be tough at first, but the longer that you do it the more you start to realize the freedom that it holds. Of course, being able to pull this off means having a good sense of your own beliefs system. What are the issues that you truly feel compelled to defend in every situation? What is the upside of having that argument? Will it change the other person’s mind? Will it influence someone within earshot for the better? Would you feel personally fulfilled in either of those scenarios, and perhaps a more important question, would you not be able to live with yourself if you kept your mouth shut? The answers to these questions will tell you what is worth fighting for.
6. Attack the issue, not the person.
There is a right way and a wrong way for coming down on a difficult person. First, the wrong way: they’re complaining about something, so you butt in to say, “You know, you really complain too much.” While this may be true, it takes a combative approach, and difficult people have won whenever you go to war with them instead of the issue.
Instead of doing that, really think about the point they are trying to argue. Do you agree or disagree?
If you agree, then approach that agreement with a softer tone and an open mind. Be the type of person, who tries to see all sides, and you’ll either get that difficult person to adopt more of your mindset, or you’ll turn that person off because all they want is someone off whom they can bounce their vitriol.
If you disagree with that person, then argue the opposing side of the issue being careful never to make personal attacks. Contrary to the label that we’re sticking these folks with, “difficult people” don’t like it when their beliefs and opinions are challenged. They find it too difficult to defend their positions. Put them in that situation, and they’ll likely move on.
7. Reverse the focus.
On a note related to No. 6, difficult people often want the spotlight to be entirely on them. They are the parents, who are only too quick to thrust guilt trips on you for not continuing to do things their way or holding the same beliefs that they do later in life. They are the acquaintances who can only complain or talk about themselves.
By changing the subject to something else, you can set an environment that turns that person off of you, and the best thing is that you can do this subtly without ever turning your dealings into conflicts with that person.
8. Use humor.
Humor isn’t for everyone, but if it comes naturally to you, we recommend dipping into that particular section of your dealing with difficult people tool bag. Different people have different standards of what is funny. Sometimes you’ll be able to disarm your difficult person and get them to laugh. Other times, you’ll intimidate them by showing a confidence in your sense of humor that is disarming and off-putting to someone who has designs on exerting control. Laughs or no laughs, humor works.
9. Be a leader.
By honing your leadership strength, you will naturally repel a difficult person because it is their goal to force their ways onto another person. Leaders do not receive instruction; they provide it. This is the exact opposite of what difficult people are looking for, so by honing your natural leadership qualities, you’ll be in a position where you seldom-if-ever have to deal with such people.
For help in honing your leadership qualities, we recommend checking out this piece from Forbes highlighting the 7 ways you can start building your leadership qualities immediately.
10. Lower your tolerance for bullies.
Bullying can take many forms, and most of the time, the only way to get rid of it is to adopt a no tolerance policy. Growing up many of us heard from well-meaning friends and family that the only way to deal with a bully is to punch them right in the mouth. While we’re not advocating actual violence, you should be ready to throw metaphorical punches to let bullies know that—regardless of how committed they are to picking on others—pursuing such a course with you will not be worth the time or the trouble.
Of course, not every difficult person manifests their abrasiveness through picking on others, but for the ones that do, they will flee a situation or conversation in a hurry if they find out that you’re a person, who “gives it back” to them.
Just like one of the best ways to keep your car from being stolen is to have an alarm and other security measures in place, the best way to ward off a bully is to present a strong defense and a willing offense when reciprocating your interactions.
11. Utilize consequences.
Oftentimes you have more power than you think that you do. Think about the relationship that you share with that difficult person. In what ways do you hold power over them?
While we wouldn’t suggest using your children as weapons in a dispute with your parents, for example, some situations might call for it if your parents are out of line and presenting a bad influence to the child.
There are many other examples you can choose from if that one makes you uncomfortable. The point is in realizing where your power lies and utilizing it responsibly in order to maintain control over the interaction.
12. Spell it out.
Don’t say this: you’re mean, inconsiderate, and annoying, and I really don’t want to talk to you. Do say this: you could have had a softer tone and been more considerate of what that person was going through. Whenever you tell people what to do, it turns them off.
On the one hand, it may feel good to blast someone on their undesirable character traits, but on the other, it perpetuates the argument and does little to get you away from your difficult person. The other way—spelling out what specific actions are doing to you or others—keeps focus on the behavior, and even if they don’t act immediately to correct it, leaves an impression they are more likely to consider whenever they find themselves in a similar situation.
13. Mind the non-verbals.
Most communication that goes on between people is non-verbal, and that means the way that we tilt our heads or put our hands on our hips or slouch or roll eyes, etc.
Knowing non-verbal cues can be extremely helpful in diffusing high conflict situations, providing escape routes out of undesirable conversations, or triggering appropriate response cues depending on the nonverbal communication the other person is using.
A heavy sigh, a look at your watch, a shake of the head—all these things can help you to easily and effectively express your emotions while regaining control of an argument. They can also help you to recognize the outbursts of difficult people before they have a chance to happen.
14. Put the difficult person to good use.
Particularly when you’re in a study group, you can avoid the hardships of dealing with difficult people by putting them to good use. Of course to pull this off, you’ll need to have some strong leadership qualities, but it can be effective. By being simultaneously inclusive and authoritative, you can steer these folks into the path you would have them to go, never giving them a chance to dominate conversations from the outset.
Just make sure to be respectful, or else you could find yourself being perceived as a difficult person, too, and that could ultimately create more enemies than friends. Thus, you get one difficult person under control but create three more in the process!
15. Predict and plan.
If you have the gift of preparation before meeting with someone, come up with a game plan for how you’re going to respond to their argumentative and divisive cues. The more that you get to know a difficult person, the easier it becomes to have an “answer” for all the things they use to dominate conversations and turn people off.
By predicting their behaviors, you have a unique advantage in the planning department whether you choose to engage them or get the heck out of dodge. And that brings us to No. 16.
16. Know where the exits are.
In “active shooter situations” and airplane malfunctions, authorities always tell you to look for the exits. That’s something that you should be doing with difficult people as well.
By keeping your eyes and ears peeled for moments in the dialogue where you can disengage and leave, you can speed up undesirable interactions and maintain control of your sanity.
If you’re not sure where the exits are, don’t be afraid to make one up. “I’ve got to get to the store,” “I have a study group meeting in a few minutes”—perfectly acceptable ways of cutting off those difficult people and reclaiming your time.
17. Always get the final word.
The final word is important when speaking to difficult people if for no other reason than the fact that they always feel like they have to have it, and by claiming it for your own, you have the chance to take whatever joy they experience from being buttheads out of the proceedings. As a response, they’re likely to inflict their magical personality to other people because, as we’ve mentioned in other places throughout this piece, they want attention more than anything else. If you become skilled at taking the last word, they’ll be working to avoid you rather than the other way around!
18. See good in the person.
No one was all bad from the day they were born. Even those who committed the worst atrocities in human history had a softer side to them that friends and family got to see. It may not have stopped them from being terrible people, but that’s not really your objective when dealing with difficult people. Your goal is to basically get through the interaction—if you must—and that may mean looking for the parts of their personality that they don’t regularly display.
By finding some form of connection, you should be able to rework the direction of the discussion in a way that diffuses said person’s less appealing qualities.
19. Use the S.T.O.P. Method.
The Chopra website has a wonderfully simple way for how you can win in dealing with difficult people. It’s called the S.T.O.P. Method, and it works like this.
Stop whatever you’re doing. Take three deep breaths. Observe how your body feels. Proceed with kindness and compassion.
Most of the times when things go “off-rail” with a difficult person, it is because you’ve allowed them to have control over your emotions. By doing this easy-to-remember exercise quickly and inserting it into your head before the conversation begins, you get to stay in control of you. (Refer back to No. 2.)
20. Know how the sausage is made.
That old saying, “Know how the sausage is made,” certainly applies with difficult people, except instead of actual sausage, we’re talking about the mental exercises that go into making a difficult person, well, difficult!
Not only will this help you to understand what is motivating the other person, it will help you get out in front of undesirable behaviors before they have a chance to show off.
Unfortunately, some of us have family members, who are notoriously out for blood when it comes to finding someone they can foist their toxicity on to. The good thing about this is that as the years go by, you start to notice how they go about doing it. Yours truly has one family member, who always feels the need to complain about the political party that he hates. While I share his point-of-view, I don’t usually want to talk about it because, by and large, I’m an optimistic person, and the world has too much negativity in it for me to get into a heated gripe session.
Therefore, whenever this person starts up, I try to think about something completely unrelated or some sidebar aspect of what he’s discussing that is more positive. From there, I try to redirect the conversation immediately. Sometimes it works right away. Other times it takes two or three redirects. Either way it greatly cuts off on the amount of bile that my ears have to taste.
21. Take nothing personally.
Sometimes difficult people will set their sights on you, and when that happens, you can do one of two things: 1) take up arms against them and vehemently defend your viewpoint; or 2) let it go with a simple “you’re entitled to your opinion.”
While there is a time and a place to fight back, you really should pick your battles when doing so—refer back to No. 5—because little things are not worth defending. Simply let the hot air escape from your difficult person and demonstrate an unwillingness to engage.
This is far more damaging to that person than any zinger you use to hit back. It’s sort of like the arguing version of the saying, “Kill them with kindness.”
Above all, you should never take things personally because they’re not personal.
“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “That so-and-so called me a so-and-so!” So. At the end of the day, their animosities and defensiveness illustrate what is going on inside of them, not what is going on inside of you. Let them deal with their own issues. Don’t let their issues become your issues.
When it comes to the word “evolve” in this context, we mean that you need to learn how to evolve your relationship with the difficult person beyond the status quo.
Let’s face it. You can’t just tell every difficult person in your life to go to you-know-where. Sometimes those people will be particularly close to you—Mom, Dad, anyone?—and even though you may want to avoid them at all costs, you’ll need to have some semblance of a relationship with them.
That’s where evolution can come in handy. Don’t let your relationship one year from now be the same as it is now. To put it in perspective, think of the parent-child relationship. When you’re two years old, Mom and Dad make most of your life decisions for you. When you’re 22, they make none. The relationship has to change in order for you to be a functional person. The same can be said for your relationships with the difficult people that you have to keep.
Establish that you’re not going to be their therapist. You’re not going to be the person off whom they bounce all their negativity.
23. Put yourself in their heads.
Having a hard time arguing with this person? Not understanding why they cannot see your side of things? It may be time for you to step out of your own head and empathize with whatever mindset they are bringing to the table. That doesn’t mean that you have to feign agreement. Far from it! What it means is that in order to address what difficult people are trying to do in an effective manner, you actually have to know where their viewpoint is originating and how it operates. If you can see their side, you can defend your own. It’s that simple.
Interrupting people is rude, you’ve always heard. Well, not when it comes to dealing with difficult people! Remember what your objective is—to get away from these people or at least their urge to throw shade on everything while they’re around you. By interrupting them, redirecting conversations, and being a general pain in the rear, you’ll never give them a chance to establish the momentum that is so important for them to dominate a conversation.
Be careful with this one, though. If you’re around a group of people that are acquaintances to the both of you—people who are trying to make judgments as to whom the real “difficult people” are—you could end up casting yourself in a negative light.
So there you have it, readers—our tips for how you should be dealing with difficult people. While we feel it’s a comprehensive overview, we also know that two (or 2,000) heads are better than one. What are some tips that have helped you that we haven’t covered? We’d love to know. Share yours in the comments section below!
[Image via Perspectives Journal