Dealing With Difficult People: 6 Therapist Approved Strategies [2021]

We have all been there, we all have that person in our lives. That person who somehow has the ability to make us want to pull our hair out and scream. That person can be found in our own home, family, and place of work. We have found solace in working from home and avoiding that coworker. We have found solace in quarantine from not having to interact with that friend, that family member, that acquaintance. However, now as we begin to re-enter society, we begin to identify with the adorable child who has been quoted by millions of tiktokers over the last sixteen months, “uh oh people.” We are ultimately left facing the day when we have to once again interact with that person. 

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We all have our own working definition of what a difficult person is. I am sure some of us might have a more colorful definition than Webster’s Dictionary, but for the sake of this blog and my professionalism, let’s begin with identifying the traits of a difficult person. 

  • Traits of a difficult person: 
    • Callousness: Lacking empathy or concern for others.
    • Grandiosity: Unrealistic sense of superiority in which they consider themselves unique and better than others.
    • Aggressiveness: Hostile and rude toward others.
    • Suspiciousness: Strong and unreasonable distrust of others.
    • Manipulative: Exploiting others to benefit oneself.
    • Domineering: Desire for authority over others and a sense of combativeness. 
    • Risk-taking: Desire to experience thrills through risky behavior. 

Please note that not all risk-taking behavior is the same. In the context of this blog, risk-taking means these individuals have a desire for risk-taking regardless of the physical and social implications.

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At the end of the day a difficult person is someone that possesses traits that make it challenging to communicate effectively. So how do you communicate as effectively as you can with these individuals? First, we must identify what the Gottmans refer to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (i.e., unproductive communication styles). Second, we must identify the antidotes to the horsemen. Third, we put it all together.

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If you have ever attended couples counseling, there is a good chance that you have learned some skills from the Gottman Institute. I enjoy utilizing these skills with couples in my therapy practice, but also with individual clients because communication and relationships are everywhere. According to Gottman’s research, they have identified the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Below I have listed the Four Horsemen and their antidotes:   

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Criticism 

  • Definition: Criticism is an attack. Criticism is not constructive feedback or a critique. Starting an argument in an argument with a raised voice, personal attack, or with a harsh critical tone is one sure fire way to turn a discussion into an argument.
  • Antidote: Gentle Start Up helps lessen the blow. Use “I” statements, describe the event and not the person, let the person know what you want versus what you do not want, be polite, and give appreciation. For example at home, “I feel upset when the trash is overflowing in the kitchen. I would appreciate it if you would take the trash out after dinner and I can clean the dishes.” For example at work, “I feel distracted when I am working at my desk and you begin having a conversation with me. I would really appreciate it if you could first knock and see if I have a moment to chat.”
Strategies To Deal With Difficult People

Defensiveness

  • Definition: Defensiveness is a way to protect and preserve yourself. When we believe we are being attacked (criticized) we become defensive. The Gottmans have observed defensiveness manifesting in two ways: to counter the attack and to play innocent victim.
  • Antidote: Take Responsibility. By taking responsibility, even for just a small part of the situation, you can help de-escalate the conflict.
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Contempt

  • Definition: According to the Gottmans, Contempt is the most damaging of the four horsemen. To be contemptuous means to look down upon the other person from a position of superiority. Some examples of this horsemen are sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, name-calling, mockery, and hostile humor all at the expense of the other person. (As a Chicagoan, I do love sarcasm but not at the expense of others). 
  • Antidote: We all have wants, desires, and needs. However, when those are not being met, we might find ourselves here with contempt. Thus, the antidote to contempt is to clearly describe your own feelings, needs, and desires without sarcasm and cynicism. The Gottmans recommend describing your own feelings and not the other person’s feelings.
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Stonewalling

  • Definition: Stonewalling occurs when we turn away from the speaker physically, mentally, and emotionally. When we are being criticized we begin to shut-down or tune-out in order to cope with the physiological responses going on inside of our body. What we have learned from the research is that when we are emotionally activated/flooded, our bodies release increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Not only do increased levels of these hormones take a toll on our body, they also make it difficult for us to listen, think, and communicate. When we begin to tune-out mentally, our bodies begin to provide cues to the speaker that we are tuned-out. What happens next depends on the situation, the speaker, and the listener. Typically the more the listener sends cues that they are disengaged, the speaker will turn up the attack, and the cycle continues. 
  • Antidote: Physiological self-soothing. In other words, take a timeout. The Gottmans recommend 20 minutes, and practice some mindfulness and relaxation skills. When you find yourself becoming activated, if you are able to, communicate to the speaker that you are going to excuse yourself for a break and when you come back you can finish the discussion. If the situation does not allow for you to take a break, check out these mindfulness skills that you can practice without having to leave your desk or walk away.
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Putting it all together: 6 strategies

Now that we have defined the characteristics of a difficult person and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (unproductive communication styles), let’s finally put it all together so we know how to communicate with that person.

  1. Stay Grounded  
    • When dealing with that person, it is important to stay grounded, present, and calm. As we discussed earlier with stonewalling, there is a good chance that our body is producing increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which make it difficult to communicate. 
  2. Get Curious 
    • Consider that person’s perspective (even just for a moment). Seriously ask yourself: “What different thoughts, feelings, and knowledge is this person bringing to this situation?”; “What might be influencing this person’s perspective?”; and “Can I empathize with this person?”
    • Examine your own perspective. Check-in with yourself by asking: “Are my needs being met?”; “Where are my needs not being met?”; and “Did I eat?”
  3. Ask a friend
    • Sometimes it’s difficult to get curious on our own. I often find the best wisdom and insight comes from someone that we trust: colleague, co-worker, boss, manager, best friend, partner, or family member. 
  4. Share how you feel
    • Share your experience. The key is to use “I” statements by describing what your needs are, how you are feeling, and what you experienced. 
  5. Plan 
    • Take a moment to reflect on what you learned by this encounter and what you might do differently next time. 
  6. Get support 
    • Sometimes we need reinforcement. If you have attempted to have a dialogue with that person, but you still seem to feel frustrated and stuck, it’s ok to ask someone to mediate. Depending on the backdrop, good mediators can be: bosses, supervisors, colleagues, parents, siblings, and friends. A trusted mediator will be able to remain free from bias and provide support. 


As we begin to return to the office, family gatherings, and celebrations with friends, I hope this information has been helpful and will be useful for when you encounter that person.

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