Life is a web of relationships. Human beings are social creatures, deeply entangled in countless relationships throughout life. It’s natural to gravitate toward those relationships that bring you the most happiness, growth, and fulfillment. However, despite your best efforts and intentions to the contrary, you’re sometimes forced to deal with challenging relationships and difficult people. Navigating these interactions can often result in stress, tension, and anxiety that negatively impact your mood and expose you to unpleasant emotional toxicity.
When dealing with difficult people it’s important to remember that everyone you encounter is doing the best they can from their own level of consciousness. Therefore, try to avoid judging their behavior. No matter how it may appear from your perspective, few, if any of the difficult people in your life are deliberately trying to be the bad guy or villain. They are simply making the choices that seem best from where they find themselves in the current moment, regardless of the amount of mayhem it might bring into the experience of others.
Part of the curriculum at the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health Ayurvedic Lifestyle program includes exploring the tools for conscious communication, which can help you learn to communicate directly with the people in your life for maximum emotional and spiritual well-being. This includes asking yourself the following four questions derived from Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication:
- What just happened? (Distinguishing observations from evaluations for awareness and clarity)
- What are the feelings arising in me? (Taking responsibility for emotions and beliefs without slipping into victimization)
- What do I need that I’m not receiving? (Identifying your own needs rather than assuming others automatically know what you require)
- What am I asking for? (Specifically formulating a request for what you need and surrendering the outcome)
These are powerful and transformative questions that can lead to a more productive and conscious exchange with the people in your life. However, what if a person is unwilling to help you meet your needs and falls squarely into the category of being a difficult person? How can you maintain your presence and respond from the level of highest awareness?
The following seven steps can be used to help you navigate the rough waters of dealing with a negative person. They can be used independently or in sequence, depending on what the situation requires. Interactions with difficult people are dynamic and there is no one quick fix for every situation. Also, note that these suggestions focus primarily around changing your perceptions of the relationship rather than trying to change the behavior of the other person.
1. Use the S.T.O.P. Model to Avoid Reactivity
This acronym can be the most fundamental step in coping with a difficult personal relationship. S.T.O.P. stands for:
- Stop whatever you're doing
- Take 3 deep breaths
- Observe how your body feels
- Proceed with kindness and compassion
No matter how challenging the difficult person or relationship is, this pause will help to derail the emotional reactions that are primed to take over in the heat of the moment.
2. See Through the Control Drama the Other Person Is Using
Control dramas are manipulative behaviors that people often fall into when their needs aren’t being met. There are four primary control dramas:
- Being nice and manipulative
- Being nasty and manipulative
- Being aloof and withdrawn
- Playing the victim or “poor-me” role
Control dramas are frequently learned in childhood as a strategy to manipulate others into giving you what you want. Interestingly, many people never outgrow their primary control drama or evolve to higher forms of communication.
When you witness one of these control dramas playing out in a difficult person, you can automatically become more understanding. Imagine the person you’re dealing with using the same control drama as a child. From that perspective you realize that this individual never learned another way to get their needs met and, as such, is deserving of your compassion. This simple and profound shift in perspective can take the entire relationship dynamic in a positive new direction.
3. Don’t Take it Personally
When you’re involved with a difficult person, it can feel like their words are a deliberate personal attack. This is not the case. Their reaction and behavior is not about you; it’s about them. Everyone is experiencing reality through personalized filters and perceptions of the world and your behavior is a direct result of those interpretations. A difficult person’s point of view is something that’s personal to them. In their reality, they are the director, producer, and leading actor of their own movie. You, on the receiving end, play only a small part in their drama.
In a similar manner they are possibly only bit players in your drama, so you can choose not to give the bit players of your life control over your happiness. If you take the situation personally, you end up becoming offended and react by defending your beliefs and causing additional conflict. In refusing to take things personally you defuse the ego and help to de-escalate difficult conversations and potential conflict.
4. Practice Defenselessness
This can be a powerful strategy when confronted with a difficult person. Being defenseless doesn’t mean you’re passive—you still maintain your personal opinion and perspective in a difficult situation—but rather than engaging with the intention of making the other person wrong, you consciously choose not to be an adversary of their negativity.
Being defenseless means you give up the need to be the smartest person in the room. You ask your ego and intellect to sit this one out and proceed with an open acceptance of the other person’s position. You don’t have to agree with their perspective (or even like it). The point of this process is to compassionately suspend your need to defend a particular point of view. An interaction with a difficult person doesn’t have to turn into a heated debate. Oftentimes, the other person simply needs to be heard. By allowing them to express themselves without resistance, they can fulfill that need and perhaps become more amicable. Establishing defenselessness creates space that allows for a more a compassionate and peaceful interaction.
5. Walk Away if Necessary
Difficult people can often draw you into a field of negativity. If you feel like you can’t maintain your awareness and objectivity, there’s nothing wrong with removing yourself from the situation. A toxic exchange can leave you feeling physically depleted and emotionally exhausted; if the above options aren't helping you deal with the difficult person, walk away. You don't have anything to prove to anyone; there’s no need to martyr yourself on the relationship battleground. You may have the best intentions for the exchange, but sometimes the most evolutionary option is to set boundaries and consciously withdraw from the interaction. This isn't about winning or losing, it's about stepping away from a toxic environment that’s dampening your spirit. Detach from the difficult situation and trust the universe to work out the resolution.
6. See the Experience as an Evolutionary Opportunity
As challenging as it is, dealing with a difficult person can be a learning experience. Relationships mirror your inner world back to you and help open your eyes to those things you may not want to see. The qualities in another that upset you are often those aspects of yourself that you repress.
Recognize the petty tyrant in your life as a teacher who can help you learn what you haven’t yet mastered. Better yet, see in this person a friend who, as a part of the collective consciousness of humanity, is another part of you. As Ram Dass reminds says, “We're all just walking each other home.” When you can see a difficult person as an ally on the journey you’re traveling together, you'll be ready to answer the telling question, "What am I meant to learn in this situation?"
7. Resonate Compassion
Compassion is an attribute of the strong, highly evolved soul who sees opportunities for healing, peace, and love in every situation. Even when faced with a difficult person, compassion allows you to see someone who is suffering and looking for relief. Compassion reminds you that this person is coping with their own issues; has been happy and sad, just like you have been; has experienced health and sickness, as have you; has friends and loved ones who care for them, like you; and will one day, grow old and die, just as you will. This understanding helps to open your heart to embrace a difficult person from the level of the soul. If you can think, speak, and act from this perspective, you will resonate the compassion that lives at the deepest level of your being and help you to transform your relationships.
Difficult people can challenge your commitment to spirit, but by practicing these steps you can respond reflectively, rather than reactively, and hopefully take your relationships to a more conscious level of expression.
Remember once again that no matter how it might appear, difficult people are doing the best they are able. Knowing this, you can smile at the wisdom of Maya Angelou's words when she said, “We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.”