How to Deal With Difficult People Without Losing Your Mind
Given the political, social, and economic climate right now, tension and conflict are apt to surface more than ever.
People under stress are more likely to display a “bad day” version of themselves. Emotions close to the surface are easily triggered. When someone is stressed, angry, or irritated, they are less rational and empathetic — making the ability to resolve differences even more important.
What really matters in a difficult situation is how conscious and skilled you are. My former colleague and author of the bestselling book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman, says: “There are no difficult conflicts. There are only conflicts we don’t know how to resolve.”
As an executive coach, I’ve helped leaders at major tech and financial companies learn conflict resolution principles. Here is what I have found that works — whether it’s a conflict with family, friends, business colleagues, or the person who cuts in line at the grocery store.
Everyone has a unique story
We each have a view of the world, and it’s just that — our view. Others have their own views, which are likely different than ours. If I am self-absorbed, I believe my view of the world is correct and everyone else is either wrong or badly misinformed. This is where many problems begin.
For example: If I’m a Democrat, I may believe I’m one of the good guys. Therefore, Republicans are the bad guys, and I will likely discount anything a Republican says. I don’t fully accept them or their point of view. Labeling something as bad because I disagree with it is prejudice. This narrow-minded attitude has been the cause of wars, racial bias, political stalemates, religious prosecution, and the destruction of entire cultures.
Resolving conflict begins with accepting your point of view as just one version of the truth. There’s always another story. Resolution will be found through dialogue, not arguing about whose story is right, better, or more complete. Both stories are right.
Lisa Earle McLeod, in her superb book on conflict resolution, The Triangle of Truth, talks about seeing the world in binary terms. She calls it “either-or thinking.” We categorize and judge people and things as good or bad. When someone says or does something we disagree with, we often conclude they are wrong or manipulative. Filtered through that lens, it’s all too easy to ignore, deny, or minimize their positive qualities.
While most of us admit we are far less than perfect, we often find it quite difficult to accept others’ imperfection. If we are to handle difficult situations successfully, we must accept that people can be both flawed and fabulous.
People think you gain control of a conversation by talking. You don’t.
One of the most significant breakthroughs I’ve ever had is when I applied this principle to myself. Not only did I discover the healing power of full self-acceptance, but I also found I was more accepting of others as they are. If I am flawed and fabulous, can’t others be? If I can be self-absorbed and loving, can’t others be? If I am short-tempered and forgiving, can’t others be?
Understanding the principle of duality allows us to be more open-minded when co-creating solutions to conflicts. We let go of harsh judgments, and we open our hearts and mind to improving the challenging situations we face.
Check your intent
No one wants to be steamrolled, beaten up, humiliated, or taken advantage of by someone in an argument. Nor do we want to do that to anyone else. While it may feel good at the moment to prove someone wrong, it doesn’t improve the health of any relationship — business or personal.
If you know you are heading into a potentially difficult situation or suddenly find yourself in one, ask yourself: What is my intention? Do I want to look good and be right, or do I want the best possible solution for everyone involved?
The root of many conflicts is the desire to be right and to defend your position at all costs. Life is not about being right. It’s about learning, growing, and making peace with ourselves and others.
If things heat up, get curious
In an argument where no one is listening, someone has to stop interrupting, tuning out, or discounting others. Let it be you. People think you gain control of a conversation by talking. You don’t. You get it through inquiry, asking genuine questions because you are curious. To resolve a conflict, you need to understand the other person’s story and why they think the way they do.
“I’m struggling to understand what your real concern is.”
“Please tell me what makes you say that.”
“I must be missing something. Why don’t you think the project will work?”
See my article on verbal aikido, an effective way to diffuse a heated conversation, for more on this technique.
Listen not only to what is being said but how it’s being said. Notice body language and tone of voice. According to the research done by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, words only convey about 7% of the meaning in any conversation. Thirty-eight percent comes from tone of voice and 55% from nonverbal communication.
Learn to recognize the early warning signs of your emotions taking over.
If you really listen, you can pick up the story and emotions underneath the issue being argued. When you recognize and acknowledge someone’s emotional state, you’re letting them know you’re really paying attention. An operational or specific issue is more easily solved when someone’s emotions are acknowledged first.
“I can see you are really, really frustrated and upset right now. You’ve got every right to feel that way, given the situation. There’s nothing more I want than for us to get through this peacefully. Help me understand what we can do to resolve this.”
Remember to breathe
If you can’t listen to the person you’re in conflict with, then the conflict will continue. Being aware of your breathing will help you get centered and increase your ability to listen. Breathe from your belly — deep breathing will restore oxygen to your body and your brain. Take as many deep breaths as you can. Slow the pace of the conversation down. You’ve got to regain balance so that you can think clearly. It isn’t easy to listen when you’re flooded with emotion.
I’ve done this recently, and it enabled me to stop arguing and become curious about what I heard instead of rejecting it. When I did that, the argument was soon resolved.
Learn to recognize the early warning signs of your emotions taking over. If you feel your face getting red, chest or throat tightening, or your body temperature rising, your reptilian “protect me from danger” brain has awoken. You’ve been triggered and are likely to go into a flight, fight, or freeze response. The stress and survival hormone, cortisol, is in your bloodstream. Deep breathing will help you come back from the edge.
Speak honestly, respectfully, and accurately
Don’t exaggerate or use grandiose statements: “You always do that” or “You never do anything I ask.” They are useless and inflammatory.
Be specific and factual. Say what is true for you and state it that way. “I don’t agree with that approach because…” Or, “My concern about the project is…” Be accurate in your words.
Another part of speaking honestly is asking for what you want. Many people struggle with making requests — instead, we drop hints, expect others to magically figure out what we want, or make demands or ultimatums. None of those work well. If we want to improve our relationships, resolve conflicts, and stop blaming others, we have to learn to ask for what we want, politely.
“I suggest that before you decide to spend that kind of money, please speak to me first. Are you okay with that?”
“I really need some quiet time now.”
“I propose that we split the cost on this one.”
Be the first to apologize
If you have screwed up, admit it, and say it with sincerity. There’s nothing worse than a half-hearted, mock attempt at apologizing: “Yeah, sorry about that. I won’t do it again.” If you apologize from your heart, you’re not only honest with yourself, but you are also letting the other person know you recognize your contribution to the situation. I have seen real apologies turn the tables entirely around in heated discussions.
Know when to disengage
If an argument is getting out of hand and emotions are running high on both sides, you have to make the call: continue or not. The reptilian brain is in charge, and it’s all about survival — defend and attack. All head and no heart. What’s the point? The only thing to do is to reduce the temperature. Someone has to stop pouring fuel on the fire.
Call a time out. Take a break. Reschedule when everyone is more clearheaded. Find a way to shift the energy; it can help. If you are sitting down, stand up. If you are standing, sit down. Avoid one person sitting and the other standing — be at the same physical level.
And remember, choose your battles carefully. Not every hill is worth dying on.
Life is a journey to be more conscious, loving, and compassionate. Along the way, we face challenges, and we grow as a result — learning to make better choices. When resolving any difficult situation, we can choose to do it thoughtfully with skill and kindness, or we can fight it out.
I choose to do it thoughtfully, with skill and kindness.
What do you choose?