Dealing with Difficult People
Today, concerns about money, work and the economy seem to be topping the list as our sources of stress, most of which we have little control over. But interacting with difficult people is a consistent stressor and we can do something about that.
The most stressful life events are the death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness or injury and job loss. But for those who experience these major stressors, they typically only happen once, or maybe twice, in a lifetime. And once they occur, we process or grieve and recover. The upside, if you can call it that, is getting through these big life stressors builds resiliency and prepares us for future events, helping us to grow and even flourish.
Then there are the stressors that occur due to circumstances, like the economy, work pressures, and of course, pandemic-related challenges, which we don’t have much control over. These tend to be transitory and we either learn to live with them for a certain period of time or we take actions to overcome them, like changing jobs or adjusting spending and saving patterns.
But I think it’s the little daily stressors that affect our state of being more than anything else. Traffic, waiting in long lines, purchasing something that doesn’t work, getting a flat tire, and perhaps the most impactful, dealing with difficult people. For all of these, we can practice mindfulness to support us in responding to these daily irritants. Richard Carlson wrote Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff back in 1997 and it was wildly popular, spawning a series of books based on different topics.
The book was really a guide for mindfulness, although I don’t remember him using that language per se. For those that followed his suggestions, life did indeed become calmer and more peaceful. Much less stressful. But those difficult people issues I think require a little more consideration, especially in today’s world where we’re all under increased pressure and where the demands on our time and attention are intense.
Pause a moment and bring to mind someone who irritates you on a regular basis. It could be a parent, your teenager, a significant other, a neighbor, a coworker or a boss. I’ve had some doozy bosses in my time, so that one pops into my head right away. My first difficult boss was when I was an office manager in a counseling clinic that served low-income people as well as court-referred cases and it was a very stressful job. On any given day in the waiting room, there could be a patient with schizophrenia sitting next to someone referred through the courts who was charged with assault or rape, sitting next to a couple needing marriage counseling. Outbursts were a daily occurrence. And I felt that part of my job was protecting my staff, especially the receptionist, from as much harm as possible.
My boss, however, was extremely difficult. First, he completely ignored what was happening in the office. If I went to him to say a patient was screaming at the receptionist and the patient with the tinfoil hat was threatening to strip naked, he would say that’s why he hired me. No support or guidance. He also had a really irritating tic, which was to constantly smooth his mustache out while clearing his throat, about once every 5 minutes. He couldn’t make a decision without calling me in to his office to discuss. I don’t mean medical decisions, but things like what size ladder to buy for office maintenance, where to order lunch, and most stressful for me, what flavor jelly beans were. I’m not kidding.
President Reagan had caused Jelly Belly beans to become quite popular back in the 80’s and my boss felt it was a good use of time to call me into his office, where he laid out his big chart of all of the flavors and have me eat one bean at a time and guess what the flavor was. It was maddening. The waiting room was overflowing with scuffles breaking out or people screaming and I was stuck in his office eating jelly beans.
I was quite young and had no idea how to manage stress, much less deal with a difficult boss. That was only one of two jobs in my entire career that I walked out on with no notice, about 5 months in. I just left for lunch one day and never returned. I couldn’t take the constant irritation from him on top of an extremely stressful environment. Fortunately, I was young enough that it didn’t hurt my career, but clearly walking off the job is not the best method for reducing stress because it could have long term consequences.
The other job I walked out on was also due to a difficult boss. He believed there was man’s work and woman’s work, so I was constantly summoned to his office to cut paper or fill his stapler, despite the fact that I was the personnel manager. That one only lasted a couple of months.
I’ve had micromanaging bosses, demanding bosses, controlling bosses, and disengaged bosses who provided no direction whatsoever. Coworkers are certainly a problem as well, right? Those cranky, negative, lazy, chatty or irresponsible peers that make our lives miserable on the job. Then there’s the demanding or nosey neighbor, the unhelpful customer support person, the demanding customer or client, the seemingly endless struggle as our children go through puberty, and the list goes on.
Dealing with difficult people is stressful because most of us deal with at least one every day and people are an area where we struggle to overcome frustration, judgment, resentment and even anger. Part of the struggle is that we have in our minds that this person doesn’t need to behave this way. If they would just behave correctly, our lives would be fine. They drain us and can become overwhelming, causing us to dread going to work or having conversations or dealing with a problem.
For me, fast forward 20 years with a large toolkit of techniques and practices, including mindfulness, and another maddening boss. Not just micromanaging and controlling, but clearly not meeting our clients’ needs. He continuously stopped me from doing a task the way I knew how to do it, and forced me to do it his way, which was almost always less efficient and effective. At first, I resisted, and the stress started to build. And then my mindfulness skills took over and I simply did whatever he said the way he said to do it. It was his company, so who was I to judge him as wrong, and they were his clients, so if that’s how he wanted it done, so be it. After just a couple of weeks of that tactic, my stress was much lower, but he actually noticed the shift. One day, he approached me at a client’s office and said, are you placating me? I said, yes, I am. He never micromanaged me again and my client satisfaction rate skyrocketed.
You may be saying that you just can’t do that, and I’m not saying placating your boss is always the answer to a difficult supervisor. Frankly, it was hard. I knew I was right and my ego wanted me to prove it to him. But that wouldn’t have solved my problem. I would have just strained my relationship with my boss and caused myself endless stress and suffering.
The key is to consider the other person’s needs and issues in order to navigate relationships better. I don’t have the skills or the time to psychoanalyze every person I meet, but I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting trends. The person who won’t stop talking, for example, clearly has a need to be heard and I’ve discovered that if I take a few minutes to deeply listen, the person stops interrupting me all day long trying to get my attention.
The person who micromanages everything usually has a powerful need for control. This can develop as a coping mechanism for people who had out-of-control childhoods or other past traumas and it makes them feel safe. Instead of judging them, I try to consider this need for safety. My resistance just triggers more of a need for safety, so it’s not an effective response. Reassurance, calm demeanor, and respect for their knowledge or authority all go a long way to helping them calm down which in turn makes my life less stressful.
I’ve just been through a week of customer service stressors, the worst being related to state taxes. Before calling the tax authority about a notice I received which erroneously stated that I owed over $4,000 in taxes for 2021, I took several deep breaths. Then I spent a lot of time going through recordings that had nothing to do with my problem and I failed to reach a human being. So the notices kept coming, adding interest and penalties and stress, and I kept mailing in proof that I didn’t owe anything. I finally found a fax number and paid an online service to fax the information which prompted a phone call from a living tax support person.
Without mindfulness, I believe the penalties and interest would still be accruing. But I held in mind that this person was just doing their job and probably dealt with a lot of difficult people all day long. So even though she wouldn’t listen to me and was incorrect about a line item on my tax return, I didn’t argue. Even though I explained that I had submitted a form 4 times at this point, she didn’t know the state form number I was referring to. When I explained it was the form to prove I had health insurance all year and for which I was being penalized for not having, she had never heard of the form number.
In mindfulness, we always have a choice. Although the thought was absolutely popping into my head that this person had no idea what she was talking about, I turned to compassion. Everyone seems to have employment shortages these days, so this person could be brand new to the job and hasn’t had time to learn all of the forms yet. Or this person could just be numb due to all of the angry people she probably hears from regularly and has a checklist she simply goes through to get through each recorded call. Who knows? And that’s kind of the point. I don’t know, so why not reach for compassion instead of anger and stress, especially when dealing with a difficult person?
In the end, my ultimately 4-month ordeal with state taxes came to an end by me making changes on my tax return that matched her needs. It wasn’t correct, and again, my ego was not happy about it, but if we can’t let perfectionism go, we’re going to be stressed all of the time. So I put numbers in boxes where they didn’t belong and faxed back to her. She then started the process to reverse all of the charges, penalties and interest. So we both got what we needed. She was able to tick off all of her checkboxes so she could move on to the next taxpayer and I got resolution to an erroneous tax bill. It definitely brings to mind the question, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?
I also had to spend a long time on a customer service chat with Microsoft this week. As I tried to explain the issue, which involved a 3rd party piece of equipment that wasn’t correctly interfacing with Windows, two customer service folks ignored what I was telling them and went through their preprepared trouble-shooting guides.
We could describe these tech workers as difficult because they don’t listen, and I suspected within about a half hour that they weren’t going to be able to resolve my problem, but I again reminded myself that they were just doing their jobs. They may not have had the time or perhaps even the skillset to resolve a complicated problem related to sample rates and bit depth. And I suspect they get a lot of angry customers who treat them poorly, so I did my best to stay polite and respectful.
One thanked me for being the nicest customer he had spoken to and said I had made his day. The second tech support person, who did try to go above and beyond by researching the equipment, was sincerely apologetic that she couldn’t help me. After several hours researching online, I ended up resolving my problem myself. So you could say I wasted a lot of time with tech support, but I looked at it as learning what wasn’t the problem, which ultimately helped me resolve it. And I might have even helped them feel a little better about their jobs.
I have quite a few clients who complain about how difficult their teenagers are and it’s a constant source of stress. But if we consider what a teenager is going through, massive changes in hormones that they can’t control, we can reach for some compassion. Most parental stress is really about control. What does it really matter if their room is a mess? So what if their clothing choices are strange? If there is constant arguing about the little stuff, it makes it even more difficult to tackle the important stuff. Parents can look at their own participation in the exchanges. Could language be altered to be more inclusive of the teen’s needs and not just the parents? Perhaps. The good news is, we know that these stress-inducing behaviors are temporary. They grow out of them, so why not choose to enrich or enhance the relationship with your teen while you still have them at home? Modeling mindfulness for teenagers is a gift that will benefit them for a lifetime.
If it’s our significant other that has become difficult, we have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the relationship through mindful conversations. That means minimizing judgment, considering the other person’s needs, and expressing our needs without being demanding. It means expressing everything we say with compassion and understanding and listening deeply and openly.
There are basically two ways to approach difficult people, make them better or make you better, and I encourage you to do both. You know we can’t really make anyone do anything, but we can make their lives better by responding to them mindfully. We’ve all heard the saying, “Treat others as you would treat yourself.” Although this is a nice rule, a better rule is “Treat others as they would treat themselves,” as the first rule can be limiting because if you view others through your own lens, you’re constantly asking yourself, “What would I do in that situation?” or “How would I respond?”
That’s where judgment becomes the source of our suffering because the moment a difficult person does something we perceive as wrong, we think, “I would have never done that.” It’s better to view a situation from their perspective and think, “How would they respond?” The second you hear the word “should” in your mind, that’s your clue that your difficult encounter is going to cause suffering.
All human beings have daily stressors and even more important, personal issues. Even if we work on our issues and ultimately resolve them, more issues are accumulating every day, so we never get over all of them in a lifetime. These issues affect how we behave in life. We can choose to lash out at others or cause others to suffer in order to make ourselves feel at least temporarily better, or we can choose the opposite, which is to be mindful of the human condition and do our best to make life better for ourselves and others. We can try to remember that difficult people are in some sort of pain. They don’t wake up in the morning and plot how they’ll make the rest of us miserable all day. They have some sort of unmet needs and sometimes, we can help them get those needs met which actually makes them less difficult.
I think Carlson had it right, in that except for the big life stressors, it’s all small stuff and if we change our response to these exchanges, we can greatly improve our life satisfaction. When your child is in their 30s, you’ll be laughing about his or her behavior as a teen. A week from now, my tax challenge or sound equipment problem will be forgotten. A relationship with a difficult boss or coworker can be completely altered if we change our behavior first, to be more compassionate and understanding.
Being kind to difficult people doesn’t mean our needs won’t be met. We can learn to accept that it’s our responsibility to understand that everyone else is not going to change in order to make us happy. We have to make ourselves happy, regardless of what everyone else is doing. I encourage you to just try it. This week, select a difficult person in your life and approach your next exchange with the intention of being compassionate and considering what they need. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the change in the conversation.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.