What’s the difference between those astonishingly polite people who respond politely despite someone’s rudeness, stubbornness, refusal to get a life, or even their refusal to learn from the information all around them, and the rest of us? Attitude, and that implies a keen insight into how to deal with difficult people plus a few helpful social skills. Let’s break this down into “I can do this, too” ideas.
Treat the difficult person with respect even if you lack it. Behave respectfully even if you have to fake it. Listening to their comments so that you remember the person’s concerns is part of the respect you can show. Behaving calmly and using calming body language plus a pleasant facial expression are important aspects of showing respect. Eye-rolling is not appropriate.
If necessary, summarize what you heard and ask if you understood the person correctly. If they say “yes,” suggest that they speak with someone qualified to handle the issues raised in the conversation. If they respond “No,” advise the person to speak with someone who’d understand their concerns. Make it clear that you are the wrong address for more remarks.
Set limits, especially time limits, if the person is habitually negative. Say that you can speak with them for a specific amount of time (anywhere from one minute to ten, according to your comfort level). If the person doesn’t honor the time limit, move on to a different activity such as doing the job you’re being paid for, or simply leave the area if this is not an employment situation. If you can’t move away, focus on the task before you, not on the nuisance who talks too much.
You are not required to serve as a target for negativity. If the person behaves emotionally and accuses you of some crime, know that you cannot win a debate about the issue. Walk away. If you’re stuck in the same room with the difficult person, remain focused on your work or take occasional breaks to get out of the area. Interact with people who get along well with you. They just might advocate for you, too. Ask them to do so if that advocacy might restore peace. Do things that restore your inner strength so that you can behave calmly.
If the difficult person becomes confrontational and leaves you feeling vulnerable, try the “Oh” technique. Listen to the comments they make, respond with a neutral “Oh,” or “Oh, I have no idea what to say to that” and return to what you need to be doing. You’ve served as the audience the person wants, declined to be manipulated, and remained calm. You’ve also given the difficult person two choices: Either to quiet down now that they’ve received your response, or, to continue speaking to an inattentive person. They’ll be forced to realize that talking more to you is pointless. In either case, you win the argument or discussion by having ended your participation in it. You’ve shown compassion, patience, and a reasonable perspective. If the difficult person pesters you beyond that point, remain silent. You’ve given your response. Your silence will let that response echo in the other person’s mind.
The comments above are not promises that the difficult people in your life will improve their manners or mindsets. They’ll probably remain difficult to deal with, annoying many more people besides you. Read materials that can alert you to other tactics for handling difficult people. The book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman would make a superb starting point.
Ask colleagues, friends, bosses and mentors for insights that might prove helpful. Reward yourself for having endured the negativity, too. Enjoy a walk, a movie, a massage, a good book, something that soothes you so that you can leave your unhappiness behind you. You need an oasis free of negativity.