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.