If you’re tired of the rat race, stop associating with rats.
Difficult people are everywhere. They’re the ones who cut you off in traffic or show up in the express checkout line with a cart full of groceries. Or they’re the ones at home or on the job who zero in on your weaknesses, giving you too many critical looks or stinging comments.
These difficult people may be a part of your daily life. They may be co-workers who make every work day a struggle, or they may be relatives who have a knack for ruining every get-together.
These difficult people may even be a part of your past, but deep inside, they’re still bugging you. Maybe you left home years ago, but memories of a parent’s put downs continue to haunt you. Or maybe an ex-boss so destroyed your confidence that you’ve never quite recovered.
What can you do if you’re forced to interact with difficult people? You may not be able to avoid the person or avoid interacting with him or her. And you probably won’t change the other person. But there’s quite a bit you can do to make these encounters less upsetting.
First, LET GO OF YOUR EXPECTATIONS. As author Joyce Landorf says in her book, Irregular People, difficult people are deaf, dumb, and blind when it comes to your feelings. As she details in her book, these folks cannot or will not be sensitive to your emotional needs, no matter how much you explain or beg. What’s worse, she states, they are often incapable of giving an apology.
So let go of your expectations. Most of the time, you won’t be able to change difficult people or “clean” them up.
It’s like the man who was traveling through cannibal country. He came across a cafeteria deep in the jungle. A sign on the roof advertised the cost of each entree. There was fried missionary for three dollars, sautéed safari guide for five dollars, and baked politician for twenty-five dollars.
The fellow asked why the politician cost so much more than the other dishes. “Ever try to clean one of those things?” replied the chef.
Likewise, you won’t have much luck “cleaning” up difficult people. So if you don’t expect too much from them, you won’t get nearly as hurt or upset when you’re interacting with them.
Second, GET SOME UNDERSTANDING OF DIFFICULT PEOPLE. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or even like them. But if you understand them a bit more, you’ll be in better shape to handle them.
Get some more information. You can never have too much. One salesman learned that when he came up to a country store and saw a gentleman rocking on the porch and a dog lying by the rocker. The salesman said, “That’s a beautiful dog. Does your dog bite?”
“Nope,” said the man in the rocking chair. So the salesman reached down and patted the dog, which of course leaped up, grabbed the man’s arm, and took a hunk.
The salesman said to the man, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The man said, “He doesn’t. But that’s not my dog.”
You have to get some more information and understanding of difficult people. You’ve got to recognize the three major types of difficult people. And you’ve got to realize that your goal is to change the way you interact with them, not to change them personally.
One type of difficult person is the critic. YOU MUST RESTRAIN THE CRITIC. Critics think they’re just being helpful, but in reality they’re bossy, arrogant, and nit picking. They act as though they know it all, as they find the cloud in every silver lining. They think like author Gore Vidal, who said, “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Without some intervention on your part, the critic can deflate your self-esteem and drain your energy. You need to restrain the critic once in a while.
Learn to deflect her arrows. Critics often say things that are quite hurtful, and you may not know how to respond. You may listen to what she says and then replay the conversation in your head for hours afterwards. You may go through days of agony before you think of a good comeback.
You need a response that doesn’t require much thought when you’re still feeling numb from the bite of the critic’s words. Sometimes you can stop a verbal assault by firmly saying, “Excuse me. That sounded like a put down. Did you mean it that way?” Such a response gives the critic a chance to rethink her remarks, while making her realize you are aware of the subtle emotional overtones.
In other words, you deflect the subtle manipulation. That’s what one young pastor learned to do. The congregation had had the same pastor for many years, but when he retired, the hiring committee found that the new crop of pastors had very different ideas about a pastor’s duties.
When the hiring committee finally found and signed on a bright young man to lead them, they were upset when he started to make a lot of changes, which resulted in budget increases. One change was hiring a man to care for the extensive church lawn and grounds.
The budget committee decided it was time for a talk and called a meeting. “We see that you have hired a man to take care of the church grounds,” they began. “Indeed, I did,” replied the young pastor, “and he does a fine job of it too.”
“Yes,” replied the spokesman. “But we wondered if you knew that our previous pastor took care of the grounds himself?”
“Yes, I did know that,” said the young man. “And?” prompted the spokesman.
“And I called him,” replied the young pastor, “but he doesn’t want to do it anymore.”
You can also set limits on the criticism you’ll accept. For example, try saying something like this when a person is overstepping her boundaries: “You may criticize anything I do, but don’t tell me how to correct my relationship with my brother. For right now, that’s my business.”
I’m not suggesting you write off critics and all that they say. There may be some truth or helpful insights in what they say. I’m simply suggesting that you need to take care of yourself and put things in perspective. In other words, the critic’s comments may be important, but ultimately what you decide to do is most important. You’ve got to keep your dreams alive and not let the critics snuff them out.
Another type of difficult person is the controller. INFORM THE CONTROLLER. He’s the rigid, demanding one who can’t let go. He’s got to have his way. So he invades your personal and professional territory. In most cases, he’s not trying to hurt you. He’s just trying to protect himself.
That being the case, you can dampen a controller by drowning him in information. The more informed he is the less controlling he’ll be. In a work situation, for example, put your plans in writing and give them to the controller. That gives him time to think about it instead of jumping right in with more controlling behavior.
It also helps if you respond with some gentle, informing confrontation. Arrange to meet him alone, picking a time where neither of you is pressured by the clock.
When you confront the controller, use statements that describe how you feel when he says or does a certain thing. Don’t blame, but calmly explain why the behavior is unacceptable to you. Offer some suggestions as to what would help the situation, and share your willingness to listen to his ideas.
Such a gentle, informing confrontation often leads to a renegotiation of your respective roles. In other words, you reassure the controller that you’re both on the same side, trying to improve customer service, or trying to increase productivity, or trying to accomplish whatever your common goal might be, but you each need your own autonomous space to do your own part as well as possible.
A good example of a gentle confrontation leading to renegotiated roles comes from a job interview. It was at the end of a job interview when the human resource director asked the new MBA grad what salary he would expect if hired.
The candidate responded confidently, “In the neighborhood of $100,000, depending on the benefits package.”
The H.R. director replied, “What would you say to a benefits package of 5 weeks of paid vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, a retirement fund with a 50% company match, and a company car, say a new red convertible BMW?”
The MBA grad sat up, mouth agape, and said, “Are you kidding?”
“Of course,” said the H.R. director, “but you started it.”
Finally, there’s the martyr. DISTANCE THE MARTYRS. They’re the ones who claim to get the short end of the stick in everything. They’re the victims in life, who are flattened by the smallest difficulty, yet they seldom take any action to better their situation.
Keep your distance from such people, physically or emotionally. Martyrs seek pity, and they’ll try to make you feel guilty for having more or not doing more for them. And even if you did more for them, it wouldn’t be enough.
You should physically distance yourself from these people. Don’t spend too much time with them. However, if you can’t avoid them, make sure your own self-esteem is in good shape so they don’t bring you down.
You can also distance yourself emotionally. Martyrs want you to join their pity party, but you can refuse to be a victim. You can do some things to make things better.
That’s what Bill and Gretchen decided to do. While half of the campers in the trailer park were complaining about the other campers playing loud music at night, they refused to be co-martyrs. They decided to take action. Bill and Gretchen mounted two large loudspeakers on the roof of their camper.
As the other noisy, boisterous campers were getting into full swing, Bill and Gretchen retreated for the evening. After a while, a low moan, becoming more and more audible, came from their speakers. The sound turned to an unmistakable wolf-like howling. And that was soon joined by a series of rising and falling harmonies.
After reaching peak volume, the loud chorus faded quickly into utter silence. The campground was deathly quiet for what seemed like ages. Then Bill and Gretchen announced over their loudspeakers, “Relax, folks. It’s just a recording. Good night, everyone.”
Are you stuck with some difficult people in your life? Are you tired of the rat race? Then try some of today’s strategies so you won’t be “associating” with so many rats.
Action: Select a critic, controller, or martyr in your personal or professional life. Then use the strategy that applies to that individual, the strategy discussed in today’s Tip. Apply the strategy to that person two or three times in the next sixty days, and you’ll see that person become less difficult.