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How to deal with difficult people: Everything you need to know

Difficult people can ruin your entire day before it even begins.

Whether you have colleagues at the office who are hard to work with, classmates at school who spend more time gossiping than working on your shared projects, or just acquaintances in your social circle who can’t get enough of stirring the pot, difficult people can exist in all areas of your life.

So how do you deal with difficult people?

There is no one easy answer for this; after all, there are different kinds of difficult people and different ways that they make things difficult.

We’ve prepared a complete guide on understanding, identifying, and dealing with the difficult people in your life.

What Makes a Person “Difficult”: Understanding the Big Five

The most established model for understanding personalities in the science of personality research is known as the “Big Five”, which claims that our personalities are a combination of five general factors:

1)    Emotional stability
2)    Extraversion
3)    Openness
4)    Agreeableness
5)    Conscientiousness

A person has a unique score for each of the five personality types, and for most of us, people generally fall into the average or middle scores for each of the five factors.

However, difficult people tend to show lower scores, and the lower their scores, the more difficulty they have getting along with people around them.

Higher scores mean having higher social effectiveness; lower scores result in a greater inability to interact effectively with those around us.

But what causes a person to have higher or lower values of the Big Five general personality factors?

It is suggested that personality development during childhood is the greatest indicator of whether a personality matures or not.

Without the proper discipline, care, and attention during a person’s formative years, they are unable to properly develop their personalities and instead develop defense mechanisms for what they lack.

These defense mechanisms end up manifesting as difficult behaviors and traits.

This means that a difficult person should not always be confused with a malicious or toxic person; in most cases, they are unaware of the inconvenience they cause those around them.

 5 Common Traits of a Difficult Person

1) Everything Is About Them

The Behavior: Some people are masters when it comes to spinning situations or discussions into a way to talk about or interject themselves.

If too much of the spotlight has strayed away from them for too long, they have to do whatever it takes to make sure it comes back to them.

You end up never wanting to interact with them, because you know you’re going to get tied down to an endless story about their weekend, their ideas, their thoughts, and whatever else is going on in their lives. 

Why They Do It: These people are not necessarily cruel; they are just slightly immature in their personal growth.

They are too accustomed to unabashed attention and find it difficult to think about others. In the worst cases, everyone around them simply exists to enhance their centrality in the universe.

2) They are Verbally Toxic

The Behavior: They will always have something to say about everyone and everything.

Gossiping, blaming, whining, and shouldering off responsibility to the next likeliest candidate is their daily agenda. Simply put, they just don’t know when to shut up.

They are master storytellers. If a minor event happened to someone in the team or workplace, they love being the one to break the news to everyone who might be interested.

And if the news isn’t interesting enough to stand on its own two feet, they will fictionalize parts of it to make it more interesting.

Why They Do It: This trait is related to the first trait we discussed – they can’t stand not being the center of attention.

But instead of making the situation about themselves, they interject themselves by being the traveling poet who distributes the story.

By anointing themselves as the official storyteller of their environment, they become the main controller of what people know.

3) They Paint Themselves as Victims

The Behavior: You can’t say anything to them, because they always have a reason for their less-than-charming behavior.

The moment you try to call them out for anything, they will burst into emotions and profusely apologize while giving themselves a dozen different excuses for their actions.

Maybe they were never raised in a loving home, or they have insecurities from childhood, or they have an incredibly rare mental disorder or illness that forces them to be a certain way.

Why They Do It: In most cases, this is just a prime example of deflection.

While some are consciously aware of what they are doing, there are many other cases who have simply adopted and carried this defense mechanism from childhood, and now think their behavior is normal as an adult.

4) They are Oblivious to the Obvious

The Behavior: When you meet a difficult person, you have to remember: you’re not the only one who feels that way. A person who is difficult to you is most likely also difficult to everyone else around them.

Their lives are filled with interactions with people who are subtly and carefully trying to approach them about their difficult behavior – disgruntled faces from their co-workers, sighs from their families, bad looks from strangers on the sidewalk – but no matter what happens, none of these subtle hints are enough for them.

They are oblivious to it all and continue with their behavior.

Why They Do It: There are two common causes for this obliviousness: Simple unawareness, and an abundance of pride.

Some people are just simply unaware of the looks and the subtle hints; they have difficulty reading the signs and thus never realize the inconveniences they bring to other people’s lives.

Others are just too proud to concede, and they frame it as a way of standing up for themselves.

They want people to confront them directly because otherwise, they will continue acting out and mistreating those around them.

5) They Count Everything

The Behavior: You will never get a difficult person to do something for you without them letting you know what they have done. If you ask them to do anything beyond their normal expected tasks, they will make sure that you pay for it.

They will remind you again and again about their favor, ensuring that you find some way to even the odds with them.

Why They Do It: It all comes down to being too self-absorbed. The more self-absorbed the person is, the more self-serving they are.

Every minute they spend on an objective that isn’t directly related to their own interests is a minute they live in anguish (or at the very least, annoyance). They want their time to be paid back in one way or another.

A difficult person’s characteristics 

It can be easy to think of “difficult people” and “toxic people” as one and the same, but as we discussed earlier, difficult people don’t necessarily share the same malicious intent and personality that toxic people thrive on.

In most cases, a difficult person won’t openly exemplify the common traits described above, and instead, have their own blend of problematic characteristics that lead to their difficulty.

Most of us actually have at least one or two personality characteristics that make us difficult every so often, and only by recognizing these characteristics can we seek to fix them (in ourselves and those around us).

Some examples of difficulty personality characteristics include:

– Narcissist: They need to interject themselves into topics, projects, and issues that have nothing to do with them.

– Controlling: They need to feel that they are in control, making them difficult to work with them on team projects, whether as a team head or a follower.

– Too serious: They have no ability to “loosen up”. It is impossible to joke around these people as they have no flexibility for anything beyond the rules and expectations.

– Too emotional: Too dramatic, too angry, too sad, and generally, too self-involved. They might have great intentions, but they put too much of their heart and their ego into what they do, making every setback or unexpected event an emotional rollercoaster.

– Needy and obnoxious: They might not intend to be annoying, but these people find it difficult to work alone. They require affirmation, they are dependent on their peers acknowledging everything they do.

– Non-confrontational: While confrontational team members can cause conflict, non-confrontational personalities can make it difficult for teams to move forward as well.They avoid responsibility, avoid connecting with their teammates, and refuse to work with anyone regardless of the situation.

– Interest-driven: Interest-driven people are not inherently bad, but they are unreliable because their participation in a relationship or a project requires them to be absolutely interested.This makes them slightly selfish at the core, as they do not know how to do something that isn’t in their own self-interest. Once they lose interest, they will stop putting their true effort in.

– Anarchist: These people are bored at the core, and they like seeing drama happen just because it’s different from the status quo. They stir the pot just to get some excitement, even if this means disrupting the peace and productivity of a shared environment.

Dealing with Difficult People. Before Anything Else: Do You Have To?

So you have a difficult person who is making part of your life much more stressful than it has to be, and now you are trying to figure out how to deal with them.

But the first question you should ask yourself is, do you have to?

As we discussed above, the most difficult people aren’t truly malicious.

Their difficult characteristics are manifestations of undeveloped needs and immature personalities, and they aren’t “out to get you” or anyone else specifically.

This means that for most difficult individuals, the best way to deal with them is not dealing with them at all.

By showing that their behavior does nothing to affect you, the difficult person will usually get tired of their performative behavior and simply stop, or move onto someone else.

Have you tried avoiding the difficult person, cutting them out of your life, or simply letting them know that they aren’t bothering you?

We understand it can be difficult blocking out difficult people, so here are some strategies you can employ to cut them out of your attention:

 Understand that difficult people will always exist, and learning to live with them will make all areas of your life easier.

 The more you let yourself get annoyed by a difficult person, the more they win over you. Try increasing your tolerance for frustration and see if they stop bothering you.

 Minimize your interactions with the difficult person. Out of sight, out of mind; avoid them as much as possible, and see yourself become happier as a result

Top Active Ways to Deal with Difficult People

If you have tried the methods described above but your difficult acquaintance continues to persist, here are other active ways to deal with difficult people:

1) Choose Your Battles Wisely

The Situation: The difficult person in your work environment is spreading rumors about another co-worker that you know aren’t true.

How you want to react: You want to tell the difficult person to knock it off or report them to the boss.

How you should react: Just let it go, or report them anonymously and move on with your day.

A difficult person lives off of the energy of those around them.

Regardless of their personality type or difficult characteristics, all difficult people share the same trait: they love attention.

An overt reaction is exactly what they are looking for, as it gives them a chance to further perform their disruptive behavior.

It’s important to learn to choose your battles wisely.

Your greatest priority should be your own mental energy.

No matter how much you do it, it will always take a ton of personal energy to confront a difficult person, and that can weigh on you for the rest of the day.

Pick and choose your battles and try your best to just stay out of it.

2) If Possible, Try to Document All Communication

The Situation: The difficult person is lying about a previous agreement or arrangement.

How you want to react: Get angry, shout louder than them, call them out for lying.

How you should react: Just pull up your receipts – previous emails and chat logs should clear everything up.

While this won’t work in every situation, this is perfect for dealing with difficult people at an office or someone you might go to school with.

If you find yourself in a scenario where you are forced to work cooperatively with a difficult person, make sure that every important agreement between the group has a documented presence.

For example, the distribution of the workload should be clearly specified and outlined in a chat message or email, and any changes should be reflected through these messages.

This makes it impossible for a difficult person to get their way out of something they agreed to do. With receipts at your back, you should have no difficulty proving your points.

3) Stay Factual

The Situation: The difficult person is bringing up unrelated history and excuses for why something happened. They want to draw you into a grander argument, straying away from the point.

How you want to react: You might want to get sucked into their unrelated topics, until you say something that you might regret that the difficult person will use against you.

How you should react: Don’t let yourself get emotional. Stick to the facts, and if the difficult person tries to stray away, just leave the discussion.

When a difficult person is confronted for something they might have done (missing work, gossiping about someone else, or stirring the pot in any way), they might tend to change the topic and stray away from whatever it is they are guilty of.

This can be frustrating for everyone around them, making those around the difficult person become emotional and upset.

Don’t let yourself become emotional. Stick to the facts – what you are confronting the difficult person about, and what they need to do.

Anything outside of those facts should be irrelevant, and is simply a tactic to stray away from the responsibility of dealing with their actions.

It can help to set a time limit for all your interactions with a difficult person. Just tell yourself: you only need a certain amount of time to express yourself clearly.

Any time more than that is wasted and just a way to get out of the topic.

4) Involve Allies

The Situation: You and a difficult person have been at odds for a while, and you feel yourself spiraling in every interaction with the difficult person.

How you want to react: You aren’t thinking straight, and all you want to do is continue and keep trying to prove yourself right over the difficult person, without realizing that they are probably enjoying this.

How you should react: Get outside help. Involve people who know both you and the difficult person. Tell them about what is going on, and ask them for help.

Difficult people are masters at isolation.

They always want to get their way, and they know that the easiest way to do that is by isolating a single individual who can make that happen. I

t is against a difficult person’s best interests to have other people involved, which is why that should be the first thing you do when you find yourself trapped in a cycle with a difficult person: involve those around you.

Seek help, tell them what is going on, and with their own experiences with the difficult person, they will know exactly what to do.

 Ask Yourself: Are You the Difficult Person?

As the common saying goes, it takes two to tango. The truth about difficult people is that they rarely ever realize that they are difficult.

To them, this is just the way life works. To a difficult person, everyone else is difficult, as they simply don’t see things the way they do.

So if you find yourself constantly dealing with difficult people in your life, it might be time to ask yourself: are you the difficult person?

Here are some common indicators that you might be the difficult one after all:

 You don’t have many close connections at school or work

 You don’t feel much self-worth in what you do

 You find yourself complaining or misunderstood quite often

 You are convinced that people are talking negatively about you

 You have a history of being emotional

 You feel like people don’t remember you

If you suspect that you might be the difficult person that everyone around you is quietly dealing with, then your best course of action is to just ask.

Ask the people you interact with most: Am I a difficult person?

Whether you are the difficult person in your relationships or not, there is one piece of learning we can all benefit from – a little self-reflection can go a long way.

Help your difficult person see what they are doing, and it might just get them to change for the long-term.

 

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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