difficult people

Three questions that help me deal with difficult people

“What can I learn from this person?”

The hidden assumption here is that you can learn something from everyone. It’s true, and more importantly it pulls you both out of a combative mindset. When I had coworkers I resented for making mistakes, this allowed me to compartmentalize. They weren’t good at design work, but they did have a very friendly, positive disposition (whereas I can be pretty anal and high-strung).

Instead of thinking “Why can’t you do anything right?” I could pause and think instead “This person is being so calm and nice even though we’re arguing. How can I learn this skill from them?” Sure, we still had work to do. But working together was a lot easier after I had stopped labeling all of a person as useless just because of one character trait. And long after the project ended I’m still benefiting from what I learned from them. What if every argument you ever had became a chance to learn something new? Well it can be. And thinking that way will extinguish the negativity too.

“Do I understand what this person is feeling right now?”

A mentor once told me that miscommunication is the root of all evil, and I believe it. Most arguments include much more speaking than listening, and your life gets ways easier once you reverse that. There’s two reasons for this.

First, 99% of tension gets defused instantly when people feel like you’re trying to understand them. Ask them to explain their reasoning, why they feel the way they do. You can use phrases like “Can you help me understand the most important part of X to you?”, and “Okay I’m going to repeat what I think you said and you can tell me if I understood you right.” You broadcast a lot of empathy and concern here, and if you can really listen to the answers you’ll find a much more relaxed audience. They aren’t fighting anymore, because you just made it clear you care about their feelings.

Secondly, hearing how they feel will give you a much better map of the situation. Imagine trying to drive around Dallas using a map of Seattle. Would that go well? Of course not. That’s every conversation you have without really trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Everything they say started with a feeling they had, and until you understand their feelings you’ll be using the wrong map. Have you had conversations with people where they just aren’t understanding the points you’re making, and people get upset but no progress is made? That’s driving around a city with the wrong map. Incredibly frustrating and ineffective.

“What if this is the last time I talk to this person?”

This is a bit morbid, but it makes a big difference. If you’re in a tense conversation with someone, imagine they walk out of the meeting and get hit by a car in the parking lot. Imagine they don’t wake up tomorrow. This person isn’t good or bad, they’re just a human being, and they are about to lose everything. As soon as they walk out of this room, their time runs out.

It’s so easy to demonize people we are arguing with. Easy to imagine they’re horrible and life is black and white. But it’s not. Most anger is pain in disguise. Most defensiveness is fear masquerading as strength. These difficult people are not evil. They’re just people, and like it or not they feel essentially the same emotions and stresses and fears you do. Imagine that this argument was the last time you got to talk to them alive, and see if that opens the door for some kindness and compassion. That itself won’t “win” the argument, but you’ll be more patient and kind which can absolutely achieve a better outcome.

Regardless of how the discussion goes, it’s better for you to let go of this toxic bitterness. Not that we let others walk all over us, but we won’t harm any of them by drinking the poison of resentment and anger. Let it go.

“Our enemies are not demons, but human beings like ourselves” – Lao Tzu.


Further reading: If this post resonated with you, then I highly recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Some people see it as a book on how to manipulate people, but the truth is that it simply teaches you how to listen to people, how to express yourself clearly, and certain pitfalls to avoid. Strong communication skills are a tool like a hammer. You can use them with good intentions that help people or bad ones that hurt people. But without those skills you’re driving around with the wrong map. Want to try something better?

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