“There have been people put on this earth to push your buttons, tick you off, and suck the life out of you. You know who they are.”
The preceding statement was written by Marsha Petrie Sue, author of Toxic People. Her observation is one that strongly resonates because most of us are acquainted with people we just don’t like. They can be frustrating relatives, obnoxious neighbors, exasperating colleagues, annoying customers, an ex-spouse, a demeaning boss—even an irritating member of your church. Because we can’t totally avoid them, it’s vital that we learn how to live as harmoniously and productively as possible with those who irritate us. Here are nine tips for getting along with the people you don’t like.
1. try to be a friend
Begin by asking yourself why this person seems difficult to get along with. It may be a personality difference. She may be afraid of you, which causes her to tense up when she’s around you. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Do you feel tension within yourself when you’re around him? Our fear of another person, or their fear of us, can cause tension on both sides. So begin by doing your best to be friendly. Smile and say “Hi” the next time you meet, and if the situation seems appropriate, extend your hand for a shake.
It can be especially difficult to deal with a person you feel uncomfortable being around, so think ahead to the next time you may be in each other’s presence for longer than a minute or two, and come up with three or four generic questions you can ask that can “break the ice.” For example, you can ask, “Did you grow up around here?” or “Where did you go to high school?” or “Is the job you now have the one that you envisioned when you finished high school or college? This can be the beginning of a fairly long conversation, which will relieve the tension.
So in dealing with a person who seems difficult to get along with, make initiating a friendship your first effort.
2. use TLC
I’m changing the usual understanding of these letters (Tender Loving Care) to a different meaning: “Take it; Leave it; or Change it.” These strategies are recommended by Ms. Petrie Sue as the place to begin when dealing with a challenging individual. Take it, she explains, means that you accept “events as they are in the moment” and remind yourself “that it’s OK for right now—maybe not perfect, but livable.” Leave it is the choice to reject the situation, step out of your comfort zone, and say to yourself, “I’m not going to accept it the way it is, and I know I can’t change it, so I’m leaving.” Petrie Sue says an example would be losing a client, only to have a better one appear. If it’s someone you can’t avoid being around, such as a work colleague, you can at least avoid a close friendship. Change it may initially feel difficult or overwhelming, but it is a viable approach. “Remember, if you can’t accept it and don’t want to leave it, then working for a change is the only remaining option.”
An application of TLC could be to an unhealthy work environment, perhaps an employer who’s easily frustrated and lacking in anger management. The job is paying the bills, so you have three options. First, you can simply take the mistreatment and keep collecting paychecks. Second, you can quit and perhaps explain that you can’t work in a toxic environment. Or third, you can exercise the option between take it or leave it by working toward a change. Quietly seek out new job opportunities, update your resume, and network with friends and colleagues who can help in a job search.
3. drop the ego
Self-pride can cause us to react foolishly and carelessly to another person’s behavior. Anytime you find yourself offended by an individual’s words or acts, do your best to drop your ego. That will then allow you to respond skillfully.
In his book The Secret Power Within, the famous martial artist Chuck Norris tells of going to a small Texas restaurant after a long day of filming a television series. He was still dressed in character for his role, “scruffy and dirty from doing a fight scene in the dirt.” He was sitting in a corner booth, enjoying some time alone, when “a man large enough to cast a shadow over the table towered over me and said I was sitting in his booth. He suggested, with an edge in his voice, that I vacate to make room for him and his friends.”
While Norris didn’t like the tone of the man’s voice or the implied threat if he failed to comply, he said nothing and moved to another booth. A few minutes later some of the stunt men from the show arrived and joined Norris. As the group sat there, Norris noticed that the man who had threatened him was staring at him, and then the man walked over to Norris’s table. Here it comes, Norris thought. A local tough out to make a name for himself by taking on Chuck Norris in a fight.
Standing at the table, the man, ignoring the others, looked directly at the actor and said, “You’re Chuck Norris.”
The man said: “You could have easily beat me up back there. Why didn’t you?”
Norris responded: “What would that have proved?”
The man, clearly being on the receiving end of a teachable moment, smiled, extended his hand and said: “No hard feelings.”
Norris said, “None at all,” and shook the man’s hand. Reflecting on that encounter, he wrote, “I had avoided a confrontation, made a friend, and won by losing.”
4. start with yourself
At some point, you may conclude that it’s necessary to speak with the difficult person and address the issues between you. However, before beginning this kind of conversation, take a close look at your own motives and intentions.
This is a biblical teaching: “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt?” (Matthew 7:1–4, The Message*).
Checking yourself and your intentions before speaking is also highly recommended by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living. He advises asking yourself these kinds of questions prior to “telling someone just what it is about him or her of which you disapprove . . . :
- “Are my words necessary?
- “Am I being fair in my critique, or might my criticism be exaggerated?
- “Will my words hurt the other person’s feelings and, if so, is there a way to say them that will minimize the hurt?
- “Are my words likely to bring about a change in the other person’s behavior?
- “How would I feel if someone else were to criticize me the same way I’m criticizing this person?
- “How do I feel about offering the criticism? . . . If your find yourself looking forward to admonishing another, don’t do it. Your motives are probably insincere, and your criticism will be ineffective.”
Rabbi Telushkin concludes with this reminder: “Don’t speak up until you have answered these questions adequately.”
5. use tact
Our words can create harmony or hostility. That’s why it’s vital, when speaking with an irritating person, to use phrases that promote clarity and understanding. Here are some tactful phrases recommended by authors Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon in their book Working With Difficult People.
- When you disagree with someone say, “It seems to me that the problem is . . . ,” or, “My concern is that we may not have enough . . .”
- When emotions are rising say “Obviously, you’re too upset to discuss this now. I’ll talk to you later,” or “We won’t have to agree, but can we be civil?” or, “You’d have every right to feel that way if that were the case . . .”
- When you need to clear up confusion try saying, “Perhaps I misunderstood you. Are you saying that . . . ?” or, “Let me see if I understand this,” or, “Would I be correct in assuming that you feel . . . ?”
- And if you’re feeling pressured to act, say, “I don’t feel comfortable”; or, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to hold off until . . . ?”
6. apply humor
Some offending words or acts can be modified and softened with a touch of humor. Consider this incident from the life of Louis Mountbatten, England’s last governor general of India. In the 1960s he was invited to appear for an interview on the Johnny Carson Show. His staff specifically informed Mr. Carson that Mountbatten would answer no questions about the Vietnam War, which was dividing America.
Things went smoothly for several minutes during the interview before Carson concluded by asking: “Sir, if you were President of the United States, what would you do about Vietnam?” Without becoming angry or missing a moment, Mountbatten replied: “I’d tell the British to keep their noses out of it.”
7. write a note, but don’t send it
Therapist Leonard Felder, PhD, is the author of When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People. For the book, he conducted a nationwide research study on difficult family members and discovered that “a majority of Americans experience significant tension at one or more family events each year, especially at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Easter, weddings, birthdays, funerals, and other rites of passage.”
Dr. Felder expected to find 30 or 40 percent of Americans describing family gatherings as tense or unpleasant but was surprised to find that “75 percent of men and women have at least one family member who gets on their nerves, and 68 percent . . . describe family celebrations as either frustrating or an obligation” that they don’t enjoy.
Dr. Felder suggests writing, but not sending, a “Thank You for Being So Unpleasant” card. He says this is a highly therapeutic, cleansing act: “Dear _____, I am so glad you are in my life. Because of you, I have seen more clearly than ever how I don’t want to treat people. You are a brilliant example of exactly what I don’t want to be like. Thank you for being an example that I will carry inside my mind and utilize for the rest of my life.” Not only does this relieve frustration, but it injects humor into an unpleasant relationship.
8. always be respectful
Keep in mind that every person deserves respect and civility from you, even if you don’t like them. Here’s a lesson from wartime enemies. During World War II, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed a letter sent to the Japanese ambassador in which he declared war on Japan. Churchill signed the letter of war declaration with remarkable courtesy and respect: “I have the high honor to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S. Churchill.”
Later, when copies of his letter were made public, Churchill was criticized, but his response is still instructive: “Some people didn’t like this ceremonial style. But after all, when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”
9. be one better
Finally, the reality is that we can’t always choose to surround ourselves only with people whom we enjoy and in whose company we flourish. Circumstances often place us in contact with those who are difficult to be with, such as a person who works in the same department we do. Rather than falling into frustration and anger, strive to rise higher and respond to problematic individuals with a touch of understanding, kindness, and even compassion. Acting this way generally leads to a more favorable outcome, and in any case, acting this way will make you a better person.
Victor Parachin is a freelance writer who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times.®
* Bible verses marked The Message are taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.