Dear Rachel,

I find that the world is full of difficult people. Every single day I’m confronted with people who are angry, critical, demanding, needy, selfish, immature, inconsiderate and unappreciative. It’s everyone and everywhere: family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, salespeople. I find myself feeling at war all the time, and I hate it! How can we achieve peace in the world if we can’t be civil to one another? I’m exhausted from being out in the fray every single day. Please help!

Just Wants a Little Peace

Dear Peaceful,

You’re right, the world is full of difficult people. They are angry, demanding, critical—all those things you say. But thankfully, they usually don’t all exhibit all of those traits at the same time.

In a perfect world, children would grow up with a set of caring parents who love themselves, each other and their children. Students would be taught by teachers who are understanding and encouraging, and never sarcastic or unkind. People would love their jobs, and provide their services with enthusiasm and a smile on their faces. Friends and family would always be there for us, and intuitively and generously give us support, understanding and unconditional love.

But this is not a perfect world. We were put here as imperfect beings to perfect ourselves, and by extension the world. And we can assume by extrapolation that you, yourself, are seen occasionally by others as a difficult person.

Like two diamonds that, when rubbed together, polish each other, you are meant to overcome the difficult aspects of your personality by interacting with others whom you also find difficult. But that doesn’t always necessitate a declaration of war. Allow me to make a few suggestions for tools you can use in your interactions that will make for less turbulence in this journey we call life.

1. Listen!

Most people want, need and crave to be heard, and when they whine, yell, demand or criticize, this is usually the result of trying to find a way to be listened to. You’ll find that after a few minutes of unpleasant expression, if people feel you’re listening, they will temper their tone and speak pleasantly. They will feel safe and won’t project their aggression onto you.

2. Have realistic expectations.

If your neighbor doesn’t say thank you when you do something considerate for her, if your uncle always starts a political argument at every family get-together, if your friend is always at least a half-hour late, it’s unrealistic to expect that this won’t continue to be the case. Expect the expected, and don’t get angry each time anew at something that is bound to happen. It’s like getting mad that it’s snowing in winter. It’s disappointing and futile.

3. Protect yourself.

Knowing that people are going to offend, hurt or inconvenience you doesn’t mean you have to collude with them. Before you engage with a person whose behavior affects you negatively in some way, find a way to minimize the effect of their negative behavior on you:

  • Give the interaction a time limit.
  • Have a plan B or C.
  • Reward yourself if others don’t.
  • Have something to look forward to later.

4. Practice gratitude and appreciation.

We are called Yehudim (Jews), which is derived from the word “gratitude.” So before interacting with others, think of some positive quality they possess, such as kindness or productivity. Ask questions or give compliments to show that you notice and appreciate them, and they’ll let their guard down. Even just having positive thoughts will change the energy between you.

5. Have compassion.

You know the saying that everyone is fighting a battle that no one else knows about? Well, it’s true. We are. And our problems and challenges make us grouchy, impatient, worried and stressed out. Sometimes we are so full of pain that it bubbles over into unkindness. Imagining that the person before us is struggling and craving compassion and relief, and that she doesn’t really like being difficult, will help us to be more charitable towards her in our feelings and behavior. And compassion is one of the characteristics that identify the Jewish people. We are called “compassionate ones who are children of compassionate ones.”

6. Have a sense of humor.

Quite often, the situations we find ourselves in are so ridiculous, they’re funny. Viewing your situation with objectivity will help you get some perspective, so you can see the humor in it. For example, at a family dinner, imagine that you and your relatives are characters in a comedic play. This will help you relax and diffuse any tension.

7. Avoid triggers and build nourishing connections.

If you frequent a bank where one of the tellers is unpleasant, don’t go to that teller. If there’s a woman who always wants to talk to you in the middle of Shabbat services, change seats. We ultimately have the choice with whom we build close and peaceful ties. And we can choose to build them with pleasant, kind, refined, fun and spiritually elevated people. In Ethics of the Fathers, Yehoshua ben Prachiya says: “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and give every man the benefit of the doubt.”1 We are obligated to judge others favorably, but it is within our power to choose the people who will be our teachers and friends.

8. Take a step back.

Why is it that we get into often virulent arguments with people on social media, people we've never met, are unlikely to ever meet and would have no connection to other than the fact that they are a friend of a friend of someone we hardly know ourselves on Facebook? The reason is that we get involved. We engage. Taking a step back from any relationship and putting emotional distance between us and the other person helps us disconnect from the conflict. Ask yourself, Is this really important? Why do I care about this? Will it matter in 10 years? Can I really make a difference here? If the answer is no, be as neutral and as uninvolved as possible.

9. Focus on shared goals.

Focus on what you're trying to accomplish together, not on the differences that are making it difficult to accomplish it. If your boss wants you to work on a project but is critical and demanding, share with her your vision for how you can help achieve your mutual goals. Adopt the "We're on the same team!" mentality. When you focus on all you have in common with the other person, you will feel a sense of camaraderie.

Wishing you harmony in all your relationships,