How to Deal with Difficult People
Five types of difficult personalities and how to cope with them
During the past few years, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was learning to let go of the toxic relationships in my life. Whether it was a friend or boyfriend, I found it difficult to cut ties and walk away from an unhealthy situation—even when it was in my best interest.
Looking back, I realize the reason I stayed in these relationships was the fear of starting over and building new relationships from scratch. Sometimes I wish, more than anything, that I could go back in time and slap some sense into my younger self, but I know that’s all part of growing and maturing as a person. Now I’m happy (and relieved) to say that I have the most amazing people in my life, and am beyond grateful for the hardships I went through to get to this point.
That being said, there are some relationships in life—mainly coworkers and family members—that you just have to put up with. In these circumstances, there is no easy way to cut ties, so ultimately you have to find a way to cope. But aside from that, here are five types of difficult people you will come across in life and how to deal with them:
1. The Complainer
This is perhaps the most common type of all difficult personalities. For many years, I found myself attracted to these type of girl friends, maybe because I enjoy playing the therapist role at times. But as much as I enjoyed helping them sort through their issues, I always felt drained after spending time with them. Oftentimes, what was meant to be a relaxing night over a glass of wine turned into a 3-hour venting session about why her love and/or work life sucked.
Dealing with a complainer involves a two-step approach. First, you need to know what not to do:
“Don’t agree with their complaints, don’t apologize (not immediately), and don’t become overly defensive or counter-attack because this only causes them to restate their complaints more heatedly,” says Clay Tucker-Ladd, Ph.D, author of Psychological Self-Help.
The second step is giving the complainer the tools he or she needs to come up with a solution.
“As you gather facts, create a problem-solving attitude. Be serious and supportive. Acknowledge the facts. Get the complaints in writing and in precise detail. Get others, including the complainer, involved in collecting more data that might lead to a solution,” says Tucker-Ladd.
2. The Know-It-All
These are the people who are always trying to impress or one-up you. The “know-it-all” is out to prove something and is all about appearance—name-dropping, competing and making comparisons. I’ve encountered “know-it-alls” in both my academic and professional life, and my approach has always been to just smile and nod—essentially, letting them think they’ve won, because it’s a waste of my energy to confront them. According to experts, that is actually a solid strategy.
“Competitive types are handled by letting them win. Until they win, they won’t have a chance to show generosity. Most competitive types want to be generous; it improves their self-image, and competitive types never lose sight of their self-image,” says Deepak Chopra. “If you have a strong disagreement, never show emotion or ask for mercy. Instead, make a reasonable argument. If the discussion is based on facts, competitive types have a way to back down without losing.”
3. The Volcano
Unfortunately, I’ve dated my fair share of volcanoes—the arrogant, domineering, hostile types. In my defense, I was initially drawn to the confidence, charm and intensity of their personality—but later came to discover the controlling, manipulative side. But let’s assume you don’t have a Christian Grey dating history. How do you deal with these types of people as colleagues or relatives?
“When responding to a difficult person, you have several choices—doing nothing, walking away, changing your attitude, or changing your behavior. Doing nothing may not be the best choice because over time it can lead you to become increasingly frustrated,” according to leadership consultant Louellen Essex. “Walking away may not be an option if you need to work closely with the person. Changing your attitude and learning to view the behavior differently can be liberating. Ultimately, though, changing your behavior is the most effective approach because the difficult person then has to learn different ways of dealing with you.”
While you may not be able to control their behavior, you can control how you respond to it. By teaching yourself to disengage, you can prevent yourself from getting trapped in the negative cycle.
4. The Pessimist
Similar to the complainer, pessimists drag people down with their negative energy. The main difference, however, is that the pessimist has a hopeless “I give up” and “It will never work” attitude. The danger in spending time with pessimists is that they can suck you into their cynical world before you realize it.
“Don’t argue with the pessimist; don’t immediately offer solutions to the difficulties predicted by the pessimist,” says Tucker Ladd. “Instead, make optimistic statements — showing that change is possible — and encourage [them] to brainstorm leading to several possible alternatives.”
The next step is to ask what the worst possible outcome of each situation would be. This gives the pessimist an opportunity to problem solve, which will subtly help them move away from their negative assumptions.
5. The Sniper aka the Passive-Aggressive type
This personality type is most commonly seen in the workplace. Snipers have an underlying fear of conflict, so they avoid it—which can manifest in the form of a power struggle. Whether this is a professional or personal relationship, the signs are similar: sarcasm, the silent treatment, gossiping, and not doing what is expected of him or her.
Essex says, “Hold your ground. Teach others how to treat you. Don’t open the door to challenges. With snipers, you may need to expose their behavior publicly to other team members.”
When all else fails, and it will sometimes, give yourself permission to limit your exposure to the difficult people in your life. While you may not be able to fully rid yourself of their toxic load—and they may revolt or throw a fit when you try to disengage—I believe that you will be happier in the long run when you establish appropriate boundaries.
Have you encountered one or more of these difficult personalities? Tell us how you handled it in the comments!