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How to Deal With a Difficult Person

How to Deal With a Difficult Person

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Who hasn’t been thrown off balance by a difficult person? The perpetrator could be virtually anyone—a spouse, relative, friend, coworker or boss.

Which reminds me of what Rabbi Joseph Richards said: “People are annoying. So find the person who annoys you the least, and marry that one!”

So how do we deal with these It’s easy to lash back in angerdifficult people in our lives? It’s easy to lash back in anger or defensiveness when a person acts nasty or tries to manipulate us, thinking we’re showing strength. But really, we are being weak by succumbing to an impulse to get even. Retaliating or trying to justify ourselves is, in effect, fanning the flames of toxicity, enabling the person to continue his or her difficult behavior.

A wiser thing to do is to apply this teaching from the Jewish sage Ben Zoma: “Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is said:1 ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city.’”2

Subduing our impulse to respond in kind to difficult behaviors does not mean enabling another person to behave poorly. It means learning to respond in a way that is respectful to both ourselves and the other person.

To move from simply feeling annoyed by a difficult person to responding constructively, it helps to understand the likely underlying reasons for the troublesome behavior. Here’s how to do this, using guilt-trippers, scorekeepers and blamers as examples of difficult behaviors:

The Guilt-Tripper

Instead of expressing his or her wants and feelings directly, the guilt-tripper makes others feel guilty.

Example: “Go ahead and watch TV while I do the dishes and then put the kids to bed. I feel a migraine coming on, but I’ll manage. And I still have to get up early tomorrow to finish that project at work.” Sigh.

Underlying Reason: Guilt-trippers lack self-esteem. Consequently, they don’t feel worthy of asking directly for what they want. They may act like a martyr, hoping the other person will get the hint. When that doesn’t happen, they become resentful or depressed.

Solution: Encourage guilt-trippers to express themselves clearly. Ask the other person, “Do you want me to help more? Please say specifically what you want. You can ask me for anything. I might not give you the moon, but if you ask me to do something simple, I’ll probably say, ‘Fine.’”

The Scorekeeper

The scorekeeper says nothing when upset, but keeps track of each incident, and eventually lets it all out at once.

Example: “I was expecting you to call an hour ago to say you’d be late for dinner. I should have known you wouldn’t call, because you didn’t call when you were over an hour late last Tuesday and three other times last month. And that time two years ago ... ”

Underlying Reason: Scorekeepers feel uncomfortable about making waves by complaining. Eventually, like a volcano, pressure accumulates and they spew out what’s been building up.

Solution: Apologize for your part in causing discomfort. Say you prefer to hear what’s bothering the person each time, rather than have resentments accumulate.

The Blamer

The blamer accuses others of being inadequate, using you-statements and name-calling, such as “You’re a jerk (or a slob, or stupid).”

Underlying Reason: Blamers lack self-esteem and feel unsafe expressing themselves with I-statements, such as “I’m disappointed (or frustrated, or feel disrespected) by your lateness.” They’re more likely to say, “You’re always late,” or “You’re rude.” Insecure people who feel inferior to their partners or fear being abandoned might unconsciously resort to blaming or putting down others, hoping to erode their partners’ self-esteem to the point that they won’t think they can find a better mate.

Solution: Compose yourself with a couple of deep breaths, so you won’t respond impulsively. Try to be objective. Ask yourself, “Am I at fault?” Either way, respond calmly and respectfully: “Yes, I often run late, and I hear this bothers you. It’s my problem; I try to do just one more thing before I leave. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”

If you realize you’re being falsely accused, state your disagreement calmly. If you’re being unjustly accused of lying, for example, say, “I’m actually careful to be truthful.” You can also politely ask the person to give an example of what he or she is accusing you.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Compassion and Common Sense

These are three kinds of difficult behaviors. If you’re on the receiving end of any of them, use common sense. If you can muster up compassion for someone who is being difficult, the person will sense this and feel less of a need to project his or her insecurities on you. You can also become part of the solution by using positive communication techniques.

In any case, do not trap yourself into staying in a toxic situation. You can become part of the solutionIf the behavior continues despite your efforts to defuse it, be willing to walk away graciously, at least momentarily.

Remember: We cannot change another person’s behavior; we can only change our own. As Ben Zoma’s teaching implies, by exercising self-control when faced with someone who is being difficult, we show true strength of character. When we can feel compassion for the other in our heart, we convey a sense that we’re all in this together, each with our own challenges, which are all opportunities for personal growth. By responding sensitively to a difficult person, we foster our own well-being and the well-being of the other person.

Footnotes
2.
Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and marriage and relationships educator.
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Dr Billy Levin South Africa December 7, 2015

difficult peope may have an inherited neurological disability Understanding how the left and right brain function will explain exactly how the human brain allows us to function under all situations provided there is no genetically inherited dysfunction. With a dysfunction like ADHD the brain functions differently explaining difficult behavior. The need is to recognize, evaluate and treat medically if the dysfunction is severe. If mild, to understand and react correctly. Hasty, impulsive, difficult and reckless behavior is not normal and if severe, needs medical attention. . Reply

Amichai Schneller st.cloud MN November 8, 2015

difficult people... I find the best thing to do with difficult people, especially relatives who have been abusive and or engaged in a campaign of un warranted malice towards me, is to simply disappear off the face of the Earth. Move away, change your phone number, delete your FB account e-mail account, and ignore them forever. Life is short. And you don't owe them the courtesy of responding or reacting to their difficult behavior. Out of sight...out of mind. By reacting to "their problems, and or worrying about what could have been said and wasn't, what should have been done but wasn't, is like doing their job for them. Why bother? Re-invent yourself, heal yourself. Convince yourself it was a bad dream.
And use NLP to help solidify your new self, hypnosis is another great tool. Use it!! Reply

Anonymous Irvine, CA via chabadni.com November 2, 2015

Difficult people are abusive I appreciate the article but in this situation, I from a personal perspective think that the issue is taken a little too lightly. Before I married my kind and gracious husband- I was dating an individual years ago that was very abusive in all aspects...I was too ashamed to share with family what was taking place.. hence, lets jump forward to the future-abuse is abuse if you have lived it one way or another. This is a "sweet" article however abuse is abuse and maybe it should be addressed in depth by Chabad more than glancing over it .. and calling these abusers difficult people is incorrect.. they are cruel and manipulative even with words. By far I am not a "crybaby" about what I experienced but...I will speak out on the experience to help others and we need to realize this. I was in this case a victim of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse....now, I prefer to still stay peaceful, hit the ignore button and speak out for the sake of all other victims that don't have a voice. Reply

Anonymous November 1, 2015


If you are close enough, you can use humor and just say " Are you blackmailing me?" then say "what is the real issue ?".
With age it gets easier sometimes because you're less prepared to take it and suffer since time is precious, but you do not want to have a war(or cold war) over mundane things either. Reply

SaltNPepper Queens November 1, 2015

A Blast from the past can be a blast in the future when you SALT your words I remember an old boyfriend I used to have who took a shift to follow after peer pressure. Suddenly I was chopped liver and discarded. Funny thing is although he said (He) knew (me) better than I knew myself, the actuality was I knew him more. He never knew I faced perilous circumstances the whole course of our relationship. Tyrannical personalities know exactly how to manipulate. "The power of Suggestion" would bring charges out of no where while so-called friends laughed their hearts content on how easy it was to bring down a relationship. People are twisted enough to come at people another level: like a thug by saying that he or she and two others could have anyone confined?! MAN! I usually stand back and see how these plots turn out. The spirited tongue gets the best of them & somehow it get's tied into a predicament. Should it have gone there? No, not really. The strife that these types of control creatures promulgate set people off. We have to defuse, reverse & use tools properly. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona November 1, 2015

"Difficult People" There is an old saying that goes like this: "Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you." In other words, let's not leave it to a higher power to resolve our issues with "Difficult People." Let's take the responsibility ourselves. Reply

David Rankin New Zealand October 31, 2015

This subject seems to have triggered a response from a number of people, about the same as has come in over the last year. The varying responses show how differently we react. The reaction from the 'difficult people' is just as varied. Some are looking for help, some wish to cuddle their misery, some have backgrounds that would sour anybody. Many are not aware of their contrariness. The most successful approach seems to be to first take an interest in them, then observe and tread gently.This takes time, but most people will take from someone they consider a friend what they would not take from a mere acquaintance. Be careful about intruding where you have not been invited,- although this may be necessary - and make sure you preserve their dignity. Correct in private, and always calmly.
I ran road maintenance gangs, some 'difficult' enough to be there by Court Order. Poking one's nose in could be injurious to one's health, but listening to them without being judgmental worked wonders. Reply

Anonymous Saginaw October 30, 2015

Great advice Gary! Whatever the problem and despite whatever complexities, the answer is quite simple. Love and keep HaShem first, and as an extension love all creation and treat in kind. Help return those lost. This is the advice article I would expect to come from Chabad.org. Reply

Anonymous Irvine, CA via chabadni.com October 30, 2015

Difficult and cruel I make it a general practice to stay away from these types completely- you have two types and generally in the same person, difficult/cruel. I don't fear them and I know they will learn one day and my favorite saying is "let Hashem deal with them" that is because I believe that. Thus, I walk away , stay away, and hit the "ignore" button. I have had to deal with this type in several communities and thus stay away. But, let me make this clear I don't hold grudges nor hate them, I actually pity them and have compassion for them. I just stay away-no need for other peoples drama and yetza hara nor lashon hara. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona October 30, 2015

"Difficult People" With all due respect to the author, I don't believe her solutions are viable. From my own experience, I believe that these "Difficult People" are very self-centered and don't care about anyone else but themselves. If counseling and discussion don't resolve the issues, the best option may be to eliminate these people from one's life. No one should have to live without respect and kindness from others. Reply

Gary W. Harper Saylorsburg, PA October 30, 2015

I just smile at them, and I ask them, "So; how is YOUR day going?"

The reality of it is, that most of them just want to vent their feelings; and then they are purged, for just a little while. The reality of it all is, that they are wrapped up in sure death of the small self; they are unaware of the Living Peace of the Great Self. Ego, Id, and all of that.

In a way, I feel sorry for them.

Live by example. Perhaps, one day, they will ask you, "Why do you always seem to be so at peace? Why are you seldom angry, or frustrated, or depressed? How can you always smile?"

And then, you can tell them, "Because I keep Hashem first, in my life; it is its own Reward."

This may put them off, at first; it may even drive them away, sometimes, even permanently. But, maybe, they will come around?

There is still Hope, for everyone, even unto the last breath. I have seen it happen before... Reply

DONNA ANDREWS NORTH KINGSTOWN October 29, 2015

Let's put this in perspective. I don't believe that the writer would put anyone's mental or physical being at risk. is about maintaining love and respect in a relationship. I do get where you are coming from; I have been in all the situations mentioned here and nothing worked for me. In my everyday dealings with people these points are great and do work otherwise, walk away and get help. Reply

Anonymous Saginaw October 29, 2015

I agree with Yakov from Chicago, well said. There is so much wrong with this article, I could write pages on it and the complexities of these issues and possible scenarios. David Rankin, I made a short response, but I'm not hasty in looking at situations. I hear where you are coming from, there are so many dimensions to these things, every situation is unique. I do not think it's healthy to 'guilt trip', either, just as calling people hurtful names is demeaning and not helpful. Destructive behavior should be discussed lovingly and constructively, and we all need to accept responsibility for our words and actions, and be considerate and understanding of each other. My main point was that this article will do more harm than good as it is not well written or thought out, for example: if you say "but if you ask me to do something simple, I’ll probably say ‘fine.’”, you will NOT get a positive response. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles October 29, 2015

how to deal with difficult people I am surprised at such a shallow understanding in the examples given--specifically because they all involve dissatisfied wives with advice telling husbands how to "handle" them--very disrespectful. I agree that the complaints are indirect and manipulative and possibly reflect low self-esteem. How did the women get this low self esteem in the first place, if that is the cause. Second, why label the person who does the complaining as "difficult", even if the expression seems manipulative. It is fairly obvious that the cause for the complaint is the insensitivity of the husband in these examples, who do not actually see the situation of the wife. They are the difficult people. Further, most often even women who are able to say directly what they want do not get a positive response. Even if that one time, the husband behaves appropriately, it has to be repeated over and over again. Fundamentally, this is a problem of attitude on the part of the husband, and it is disrespece Reply

Yakov Chicago October 29, 2015

I completely agree with the anonymous NYC comment about over simplifying the situation and the people who say that the person who is always tardy is the problem, not the complainer. Overall, I did not find this article useful because of all of its limitations, both in scope and in accuracy. Reply

Linda West Chester October 29, 2015

I have made a lot of progress in my own relationships by studying Nonviolent Communication, a technique, in fact an entirely new way of relating to people, developed by Marshall Rosenberg. First, there are no "difficult people" only people who are making it difficult for you to meet your needs, or who might be uncooperative due to their own struggles to meet their needs. Secondly, no-one "makes you" feel any particular way. We need to take responsibility for our own feelings and actions. Why "Non-violent"? Because the tactics above - score keeping, retaliating etc. are forms or abuse designed to get "power over" others rather than cooperating with them lovingly. I strongly recommend reading any book on NVC, otherwise known as Compassionate Communication. Meanwhile, if someone is being "difficult", start by listening. :-) Reply

Anonymous NYC October 29, 2015

I agree with the two comments. Things happen occasionally causing one to be late, I'm not referring to that, rather chronic tardiness. (It's easy to let one know you're running late, that shows you value their time) As an ongoing problem, the one who is late doesn't respect or value the other person or their time. Regarding the guilt tripper and the blamer, this is not just black or white when you write that a guilt tripper or blamer lack self esteem. There is much to the composition of human nature, therefore much can cause one to resort to name calling. True, it can be lack of self esteem but it's not absolute. There are studies that show just the opposite, rather high self esteem and standards. Does that make it any better? No, of course not. But there is so much more to that than chalking it up to lack of self esteem. A difficult person isn't always the squeaky wheel. We are however always accountable for our actions, and at times the reaction when passively stirring the pot. Reply

Ruth October 29, 2015

Difficult Person Very true. Thanks for the insight. Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin, USA October 29, 2015

What If the "Difficult Person" is a Deliberately Evildoer In my family of origin, there are several who are deliberate evildoers to those of us who are empathetic souls and their victims. I'm no longer in contact with family members who've never had consciences, empathy, remorse, or much less, any regrets for evildoings. They can't be reasoned with (I've tried for hours--to no avail), therefore, they can't be helped or fixed--only pitied for lacking souls. They are malignant narcissists/sociopaths upon whom, I hope, G-d has no mercy, for they refuse to take responsibility and repent for sins, and so, won't ever made amends to victims (of their incest), like myself. This article, otherwise, is only helpful to persons who are willing to self-examine and admit to themselves, those they hurt, and G-d, that they were, say at the very least, inconsiderate and now willing to work (hard work for some) at showing more loving-kindness. Reply

Miriam Madison wi October 29, 2015

"Difficult people" is a very broad catch phrase. Some "difficult people" have serious psychological problems, and responding to them appropriately can be exceedingly challenging. This intensifies if such a person is a family member, and is verbally and emotionally abusive. Sometimes there is no response - other than silence. Reply

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