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How to Deal With Difficult People, According to Science

How to Deal With Difficult People, According to Science

  • Difficult people are a part of life, but the wrong connections can weigh you down and jeopardize your performance.
  • An ideal scenario would be to simply avoid these people, but that’s not always possible.
  • How to deal with difficult people: Cultivate empathy, boost oxytocin, take responsibility, express gratitude, meditate, agree to disagree, and get high-quality sleep.
  • If you try these suggestions and they don’t work, cut ties with the person if possible. If not, set firm boundaries.

Everyone knows one. That controlling in-law, passive-aggressive colleague, or competitive friend. Difficult people are a part of life. But they aren’t doing your emotional or physical health any good. The wrong connections can weigh you down, sap your energy, and jeopardize your performance.

High-quality relationships are a key element to a high-quality life, and the power of community is a subject that I cover in my new book “Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Thinkers Do to Win at Life.” I interviewed hundreds of the world’s most cutting-edge scientists, educators, athletes, entrepreneurs, and artists to discover what makes these game changers so successful. It quickly became clear that people who are changing the world prioritize connection with others.

But what if some of those connections are causing you unnecessary stress and anxiety? An ideal scenario would be to simply avoid those people, but that’s not always possible. Read on for science-backed ways to deal with difficult people.

7 ways to deal with difficult people

1. Cultivate empathy

Empathy is key to establishing a meaningful connection with another person. Instead of casting off someone because you view them as difficult or unpleasant, take a minute to put yourself in their shoes. Walk around a bit. Empathy allows you to feel somebody else’s pain, and see the world from their point-of-view. Empathy is hard-wired, but it’s also a skill you can learn and improve.[1] Here’s how:

  • Measure your empathy score: First assess how empathic you are. Try this “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, which measures your ability to understand the emotional states of other people.
  • Be curious: When you ask someone about themselves and show curiosity about their life, not only do they feel heard, but it expands your worldview and helps you to understand them better.
  • Listen: Practice listening hard. Pay close attention to what someone is saying (even if they’re complaining, a common trait in difficult people) and show you’re engaged by looking directly at them. Avoid interrupting and wait until they’re finished making their point before offering your opinion.
  • Show interest: So your overbearing father-in-law loves bird watching. Read up on the topic and make mention of your newfound knowledge next time you talk to him. Learning about something he’s passionate about may help soften his rough edges and help you to bond in a new way.
  • Feel compassion: Being manipulative or playing the victim is typically a coping skill learned in childhood, a tactic that someone was forced to use to get their needs met. Once you realize this, you can feel compassion for the person and the child they once were.

2. Boost your oxytocin levels

A lot of how you feel about a person occurs at the chemical level. Social interaction impacts your brain chemistry — for better or for worse. When you meet someone who you perceive as trustworthy, your brain releases a hormone that signals the relationship is safe. That hormone is oxytocin, and when you get a hit of it, you’re driven to spend more time with that person because it makes you feel good.

When you’re dealing with difficult people, you likely won’t get that same hit of oxytocin. But there are ways to get more oxytocin even when you don’t feel particularly connected to the other person. If you feel good, that’s half the battle won when dealing with difficult people.

Ways to activate oxytocin release:

  • Hug more: Human touch is one of the most effective ways to stimulate oxytocin release. [2][3] Oxytocin lights up reward pathways in the brain, so you and the person you touch feel a sense of wellbeing. When you’re at a family dinner, greet your grumpy aunt with a big bear hug rather than a stiff wave. You may surprise yourself — and her — with how good it makes you both feel.
  • Prioritize face-to-face interaction: Talking to someone in-person triggers the greatest oxytocin release. Videoconferencing comes in second, then talking on the phone, and then texting. So if you can talk over an issue with your difficult coworker face-to-face or over video, do it.

3. Take responsibility

What makes someone “difficult”? There isn’t a universal definition. What I find challenging may be a non-issue for you. When someone is bugging you, ask yourself, “What is my responsibility in this situation?” The fact is, you can’t change another person, but you can change yourself.

Learn to identify your own emotional triggers and analyze why that particular person’s behavior gets to you so much. Say your boss regularly criticizes you. That sucks, I get it. But maybe someone disapproving of you is an emotional trigger, so you’re going to be especially sensitive to other people’s criticism. Once you have this awareness, you’ll be less emotionally reactive and be better equipped to assess the situation objectively.

4. Express gratitude

Gratitude is fundamental to long-term happiness. It’s so important that I made gratitude one of the core values of my company. Dozens upon dozens of studies show that gratitude makes you happier, more optimistic, more empathic, and more emotionally open.[4][5] Gratitude works at a neural level, and expressing gratitude fires up pathways that lead to more positive thinking.[6]

When you’re feeling positive about your own life and in a more positive mindset, you’re less likely to get affected by a negative interaction with someone. Try out these 11 ways to build more gratitude.

5. Meditate

Dealing with difficult people is stressful. Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to lower stress and ease anxiety.[7] Meditation rewires your brain and stimulates brain regions that soothe your nervous system.[8] A daily meditation practice will help you approach social situations with a sense of calm detachment, and you’ll find that certain things that used to bug you don’t have the same grating effect. Meditation also teaches you to pause before reacting — an especially helpful tool when learning how to deal with difficult people. If you’re new to meditation, start with just five minutes a day, and work your way up to a daily 20-minute practice.

Learn more here on how to meditate effectively, then try out these meditation apps to get started.

6. Agree to disagree

Realize that it’s OK to have opinions or emotions that aren’t in sync with somebody else’s. Conflict — with others and within yourself — is a part of life. Accepting it can bring about peace, both internally and externally. The goal isn’t to change your mind or have somebody else change theirs. Rather, it’s to find a middle ground, which is where understanding and tolerance lies. Connecting with people who challenge you pushes you to grow in unexpected ways.

7. Get high-quality sleep

I talk a lot about the value of high-quality sleep, and for good reason. Sleep makes you more emotionally alert, calm, and present, all valuable tools when dealing with difficult people. While you sleep, your brain processes memories and emotions from your day. Without good sleep, you’re more tense, anxious, reactive, and depressed.[9] Learn how to improve your sleep with these 9 sleep hacks.

Related: Why is Sleep Important? Science-Backed Benefits of Getting Your Zzzzs

The bottom line is, jerks do exist. If you try the above suggestions and the person continues to cause you stress, it may be time to move on. If you’re able to cut ties with him or her, do it. In cases where that’s impossible, like in the workplace, learn to set firm boundaries and stick to them. If your boss emails you at all hours of the night, resolve to only reply during working hours. They’ll soon get the message and will (hopefully) modify their own behavior.

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