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Difficult People

How to Deal with Obnoxious, Nasty, Needy or Otherwise Difficult People We all know people we don’t like…as well as people we like (even love) but whose behavior we hate. These people can be rude, insulting, clingy, whiny, jealous, overbearing, bullying or unbearable in some other way—and they can make others miserable. You feel trapped not knowing what to do when someone in your life is intolerable for one reason or another, yet you still have to live or work with that person. While obnoxious people can make you feel that you’re at their mercy, you’re actually not. Our experts can guide you in the best ways to handle the “worst” people—including the loudmouth friend who embarrasses you in public…the constantly complaining coworker…your warring siblings who make every get-together a sniping contest…the enraged neighbor who is screaming threats at you…and anyone else who pushes your buttons… Dealing with Dislikable People It’s an undeniable truth—we all know people we just don’t like. Of course, some of these “enemies” are people we can simply avoid. But all too often, the person is someone we’re in regular contact with, such as a coworker, a boss, a next-door neighbor or a best friend’s new love. So how can we all gracefully handle this type of conundrum? YOU CAN GET OVER YOUR DISLIKE “If you have decided to dislike someone, then you are also capable of deciding to give up the dislike.” Now, this doesn’t mean that your nemesis has to become your best friend. But by slightly adjusting your perspective, you can learn how to tolerate this person without pulling your hair out. And once you’re able to accomplish that, you never know—you might even begin to like the person (a little). You wouldn’t mind that, right? Here’s how to proceed… 1. Release your frustration. If this person is actively hurting your feelings, then the first step is to gently talk to him or her about it. Let’s say that your best female friend’s new love interest is repeatedly rude to you during conversation. First tell your friend about your concern, so she doesn’t feel like you are going behind her back. Then, the next time you see her love interest in person, beckon him to a private corner and be polite but frank about what bothers you and why. Try saying, “I know my friend is very fond of you, but I wonder if you realize that you sometimes offend me. For example, the other day…” Getting this out into the open will not only ensure that he is aware of his effect on you (in case he wasn’t)…but it will also lift a weight from your shoulders. It means that you have made a sincere effort to improve the situation for everyone…it wipes the slate clean so you can, if he is game, start over fresh with this person. 2. Push away the negative and focus on the positive. Maybe there is a woman in your office who bites her fingernails every time she talks to you, and it disgusts you…or she always takes the last cup of coffee and never makes a fresh pot…or she complains so loudly in the office hallways that she’s constantly disrupting you…or she always seems to try to “one-up” you at meetings. It’s easy to focus all of your energy on those annoying habits of hers. Instead, try this for a week: Ignore her negative qualities and think about her positive qualities. (Think hard, because there’s a good chance that she has some!) Perhaps she is a cancer survivor and organizes a bake sale for a cancer charity with coworkers every year…or maybe you saw her interact with her kids on “bring your child to work day” and were impressed with her warmth and sense of humor around them…or maybe she is a gym rat who eats very healthy foods and you admire her discipline. When you revise your mind-set and make those positive traits the first thing that you think of when you hear her name or see her, then you will find yourself tolerating her better…perhaps even liking her a bit. 3. Be outwardly kind. This strategy is actually pretty easy—because it’s easier to change the way you act than the way you think. Here’s the rule: No matter what you are thinking, change the way you behave around the person who grates on you. Instead of rolling your eyes or ignoring him, smile when you walk by him, say hello and ask how his day is going. Why do this? The more polite you are to him through your actions, the more polite his actions are likely to be in return—in fact, he may even welcome the “opening” that you have given him. And when he acts more kindly toward you, then you will start to think nicer thoughts about him. So it’s quite the positive domino effect! 4. Shoot for consistency. You do need to be careful about a reaction that people commonly have when they decide to be “nice” to someone they don’t like. They successfully pull off the “acting nice” part…but then, when they are with other people behind closed doors, they really let loose with chatter about how annoyingly dislikable the person is. Who knows, maybe it’s the stress of being nice to someone you’d like to punch that has to find an outlet somewhere. But whatever the reason, if you improve your demeanor toward someone in person but then ramp up the hostility when he’s not around, not only are you being two-faced, but your hostility will create negative energy within you that will make it harder for you to really improve things with your tormentor. So make sure that you are positive 100% of the time, and you’ll watch your distaste for the person slowly slip away. And if he proves not to appreciate all this effort on your part to make things easier between you? Then start the cycle all over again—and keep trying! Dealing with Needy People Needy people come in a variety of guises—old friends, new friends, family and colleagues—with needs that span a wide variety, as well. For example, I have a neighbor who wants to have dinner with me every Friday night to help her through her post-divorce blues. Another friend continues to beg for help whenever his car breaks down or whenever there’s drama at his workplace. Dealing with neediness gets complicated in that needy folks tend to be lonely and vulnerable. Since you know that they have thin skin, letting down these extra-sensitive people can make you feel guilty no matter how smothering their behavior is. Fortunately, there are ways to put the brakes on neediness without hurting feelings, says life coach and regular Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander… WHAT YOU GET FROM A NEEDY FRIEND First off, says Zander, take a look at yourself—because it’s possible that you don’t mind your friend’s neediness nearly as much as you tell yourself you do. That’s right—you are getting something positive from someone else’s neediness. After all, having someone constantly ask for your time and attention is flattering, isn’t it? To get things straight in your own mind, start by asking yourself what subtle rewards you may be getting from your relationships with needy people. Do their perceived weaknesses make you feel strong…attractive…wise…dependable…just all-around special? Is there a unique reward that you get from specific relationships? Also, if your needy friend asks you for a lot of advice and you’re constantly helping him or her solve his or her problems, it’s an effective way to avoid dealing with your own. Whether you realize it or not, hanging out with a needy person actually may be a procrastination technique—a way to hide from your own personal anxieties, fears or concerns. THE USUAL TACTIC (THAT BACKFIRES) Once you have realized how dealing with this needy friend affects you, turn your attention toward your friend—and how you can more clearly communicate with him or her. Instead of confronting the needy person head on and being honest, most of us take the easier way out and simply ignore needy people or brush them off with a lie. You might respond to one of their phone calls by saying, “Oh, did you call? I didn’t get a message…” or “I am so busy with this work project that dinner plans are going to be out of the question for the next few weeks.” But that method will not make your friend’s needy behavior disappear—if anything, it will make it worse, says Zander. Needy people are so wrapped up in their own worlds that they might not get the hint and instead feel even more isolated and work extra hard at getting your attention. You might put them off temporarily, but that doesn’t solve the problem in the long term. A SMARTER STRATEGY THAT WORKS To deal with a needy friend effectively, Zander says, you can have a conversation that follows these three simple steps… •Start the conversation by expressing warm feelings of affection. You might say, “You know that I enjoy being your friend and that I want our relationship to be strong” or “I’m so flattered by all of your calls/e-mails/Facebook posts/invitations—it’s very sweet of you.” Whatever words you choose, the point here is to assure the other person that you care and are aware of his or her feelings. •Then explain clearly what is not working for you by saying something like, “It is hard for me to say this. I know that you want me to spend a lot of time with you, but I’m afraid that I’m not able to devote that amount of time to our relationship.” Then end this part of the conversation by saying, “I’m hoping that we can talk about this and come up with a compromise that works for both of us.” •Finally, offer ideas about what you are willing to do, and then listen to what the needy person is willing to do—in this way, you can find some middle ground. For example, in the case of constant dinner requests, spell out what specific frequency you want by saying, “It works much better in my life to have dinner once a month, rather than once a week. We can work out a schedule in advance to be sure that our plans are in place.” Keep up the negotiation until you reach an agreement that you can both live with comfortably. These are not easy conversations, but they are important and fruitful. Through them, says Zander, “You will be getting what you want instead of tolerating what you don’t want.” Dealing with Tardy People You get to the theater at 8:00 pm on the dot, just like you and your friend planned—but he’s nowhere in sight. Then it’s 8:10 pm…then 8:20…and then finally you receive a text: Sorry, running late! (As if you didn’t know!) Since your friend has the tickets, you both end up missing the opening of the show—and even though he apologizes endlessly, you still feel ticked off a week later. Because after all, this isn’t the first time that he’s been tardy—not by a long shot. Late people! If you have one in your life, you know that this selfish habit can drive you nuts. Unlike in high school or in the working world, there are no automatic penalties for being late to social gatherings. To get some good ideas about how to cope with this oh-so-annoying behavior, I called life coach and regular Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander, who has advice on how to stay calm when it happens and to make your friend or loved one realize just how much his carelessness affects—and aggravates—you. HOW TO REACT TO LATENESS Chronic lateness doesn’t bother everyone, but it upsets some people a lot. Assuming that you are one of the latter, here are the steps to take… Step 1. Explain to the friend who pushes that lateness button that this habit really bugs you. The truth is your friend actually might be oblivious to how his/her actions make other people feel. You might try saying to him, “I know you’re really busy, but it frustrates me when you’re late, because…” and then explain how your friend’s lateness has negatively impacted your life. This conversation might help solve the issue. If it doesn’t, it will definitely put this person on notice that chronic lateness really is an issue, and if it continues, you’ll have an easier time discussing possible next steps with your friend because you already laid the groundwork. Step 2. The next time your friend is late (and he will be late again!), stay mum. But when it happens again after that, have another chat. Mention that he has been late twice since the two of you talked about it, and then start a discussion about ways to handle the problem that will reduce your stress and encourage promptness in him. This may involve a penalty of some kind. For instance, you might agree that the tardy person pays for the wine or dessert at dinner as a consequence of being late. Or you could make it clear that from now on, you are starting the activity on time with or without the late person. (And you should start handling your own tickets instead of relying on your friend!) Another effective option is to name an amount of time during which you will stay put at your meeting place—maybe about 20 minutes—before you simply leave. If you actually follow through on your agreement (and your friend realizes that if he doesn’t change his ways, he won’t see you anymore), then it’s likely that the lateness will stop. Step 3. If you try one or more of the techniques above and the lateness still doesn’t end—and you still want to be friends with this person—your next move is to plan activities more selectively so his lateness is less likely to cause anxiety. In truth, this decision can be a little sad because it means that some activities that you have enjoyed together in the past, such as going to that show or having private time for coffee, will have to stop. Instead, you will do only things that are not time-sensitive or that involve more than just the two of you. These could include group dinners out…inviting three or four friends over to your place for drinks…or getting together with a group for a game of poker. That way, if your friend is late, you’ll be with other people and it won’t matter nearly as much. Maybe someday he’ll reform, but if he doesn’t, his lateness won’t cause all that stress that it used to—and that could be good for both of you. Of course, if none of the above strategies work, consider gently encouraging your tardy friend to see a psychological counselor, who might be able to help him or her break the bad habit. Dealing with Braggarts We all have that one friend or relative—the one who “casually” references the big raise he got again and again. Or the one who won an iPad in a raffle and now can’t stop showing it to you as if it’s the Hope diamond. Or the one who always finds a way to mention in conversation how he runs a marathon every year. Whether these people worked hard for their successes or just got lucky, their bragging is annoying either way. In addition to being irritating to listen to, braggarts can make you feel inadequate. It makes you want to cover your ears and say, “I get it! You’re special, and I’m not!” So, short of insulting and/or avoiding these people, how can we stop them from getting under our skin? For ideas on that, I called life coach and frequent Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander, who said that when dealing with a braggart, there are two different approaches that can work very well… •Reframe the situation in your mind. Be aware that even though your friend’s bragging may annoy you and sometimes make you feel bad about yourself, this result may not be intentional. Your friend may be so insecure that he is overcompensating for other areas in his life where he thinks he does not measure up. If the bragging happens only occasionally, try to simply smile and accept that you are important enough to this person that he has a need to impress you. Take it as a compliment—and then change the subject to something that does not involve whatever your friend is bragging about. •Speak up. If the bragging is more frequent or if you feel like you’re going to explode the next time your friend brags, then confront him. Your goal is to alert the other person that he is bragging so that he realizes that he is doing it and to let him know that it annoys you and (possibly) makes you feel bad about yourself. So the next time the bragging starts, try saying, “When you name drop about all those rich people you hang out with, it makes me feel as if you like those people more than you like me” or, “When you talk about how many races you’ve won, it just reminds me how I haven’t been to the gym in weeks.” You might find that he is surprised and apologetic, because nobody wants to sound like a braggart. How to Deal with Chronic Complainers At every visit, your aging mother spends half an hour griping about the too-spicy food in her assisted-living community. Whenever you and a friend go clothes shopping together, she whines about how fat she looks in everything she tries on. A coworker constantly carps that none of your other coworkers puts in as much effort as she does. Being surrounded by such habitual complainers can drain your energy and pollute your positivity, leaving you frustrated, irritated, disheartened and depressed. But there are ways to avoid getting sucked into gripers’ toxic traps. What helps… Be sympathetic—but set limits. Complainers often feel unhappy, lonely, criticized or misunderstood. Resolve to listen to their grievances as compassionately as you can, but only up to a certain point. Set a time limit of, say, three minutes… or let your own internal cues (a feeling of being trapped, a knot in your stomach) tell you when you’ve heard enough. At that point, call a halt to the complaining by saying courteously yet firmly, “You have my sympathy. Now, let’s please talk about something more pleasant.” If the complainer still won’t quit, excuse yourself from the conversation, walk away or hang up the phone. Don’t chide yourself for cutting off the person’s rant—you are not being callous, you are simply protecting your own well-being. Resist the urge to try to solve other people’s problems or fix their poor attitudes. If a person has a legitimate complaint and you are in a position to help—for instance, by speaking to the chef at your mom’s assisted-living facility—it would be kind of you to do so. But recognize that for many grouches, bellyaching is an ingrained habit or part of their personality. Since they usually are not looking for practical solutions (as is clear when they repeatedly ignore your suggestions) and are not open to an attitude adjustment, no amount of cajoling or cheerleading on your part will make the slightest difference. Accept the fact that it is neither your responsibility nor within your power to make everyone see a brighter side of life. Save your breath to save your sanity. Tailor your strategy depending on your relationship to the ranter. In casual encounters (for instance, with whiny shopkeepers or grumbling taxi drivers), simply complete your business as expeditiously as possible while distracting yourself from their complaints by thinking your own thoughts. With a complaint-prone coworker, the goal is to avoid confrontations that could heighten conflict—so be polite but keep your distance, refusing to get sucked into a gripe-fest that could end up reflecting poorly on you. With a close friend or loved one, you’ll want to offer more compassion, of course. But if complaining is really out of hand, consistently shift the conversation to anything the person said that is pleasant… and then gently add that when people are suffering so much, they often can feel better if they consult a mental health professional. Seek out positive-spirited companions. To help offset the stress of naysayers you cannot avoid, surround yourself with plenty of yeasayers—cheerful people who share and support your own glass-half-full outlook on life. Consider whether you have a codependence on complainers. If you still seem to attract more than your share of bellyachers despite implementing the strategies above, ask yourself whether there’s an emotionally unhealthy underlying reason. Could you be using their faultfinding as a vicarious means of expressing discontent that you are too afraid to give voice to yourself? Do you secretly take satisfaction in the contrast between their constant grousing and your own image as Little Miss Sunshine? Do you feel the need to be a savior for others because it allows you to avoid facing your own sources of upset or pain? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, talk to a trusted friend or therapist about more appropriate ways to identify and deal with your own dissatisfaction. Making Loudmouths Shut Up! Surely you’ve been to a dinner party where one of the guests has ideas about, say, politics or the economy that you find illogical—maybe even alarming. Yet he continues to blab on and on about “how things should be” without taking into account anyone else’s opinion. People like this tend to be aggressive, overconfident and, perhaps most annoying of all, uncomfortably loud. And—correct me if I’m wrong—there seems to be more of them around these days. Is your blood pressure rising just thinking about it? Mine is! And that’s not healthy. So I called life coach and regular Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander and asked her, “What’s the best way to deal with these opinionated bullies without sinking to their level?” HOW TO ASSERT YOURSELF—WITHOUT FUELING THE FIRE Zander’s plan for dealing with a loudmouth… •Don’t say the first thing that comes to your mind. Though it’s tempting to denounce the shouter as an idiot or to outshout him with your own opinion, doing this will not change his mind. It will lead only to verbal fisticuffs—not to mention discomfort and awkward silences from others at the dinner table. As Zander noted, it isn’t always necessary to state your own principles—let alone fight about them—in order to remain true to them. Instead, while the tirade goes on, take a deep breath and say to yourself, I will not take the bait. With any luck, the loudmouth will soon pipe down, and then you and the others in the group will be able to get back to some real conversation. •Change the subject. However, what if your loudmouth really is asking for a fight and persists in his rant? To keep him from hijacking the entire event, somebody will have to step in, Zander said, and if you want to be that person, here is what to do. Wait for a moment when the rant has slowed down—and then say to him, “Your point of view is very different from mine, and I understand that it’s really important to you. But we’ll never agree, so there is no point in talking about this further. Let’s talk about something else instead.” Then suggest a new topic—ideally something that is also interesting, but perhaps less weighty, such as food, technology, entertainment, family, travel or hobbies. Even if people at the table have differing opinions about such topics, discussing them is less likely to invoke fury. And, Zander told me, “As simple as it is, this technique of changing the subject tends to take argumentative people by surprise and quiet them.” Before the loudmouth can climb back on his soapbox, you and the other guests are already involved in a different discussion. All in all, the key to getting less worked up by loudmouths is to let go of the idea that you’re going to “put them in their place” or change them, said Zander. Instead, what can keep you feeling calm and less angry in their presence is to defuse the entire encounter. And whether or not they say so, everyone else in the group will be silently thanking you for it! How to Calm an Angry Person When someone is angry, our instinctive reaction typically is to get defensive (if the person is angry at us) or to give advice (if he/she is angry at someone else). These responses are not useful—they do not resolve the situation and even may inflame him further. More effective… WHEN YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET The best way to calm someone who is angry at someone else is to let him vent. Don’t interrupt or tell him why he shouldn’t be angry or that he should let it go. Don’t talk about the time you got mad about the same thing—this implies that your reaction is more important than his. When he has talked himself out, acknowledge his feelings—whether or not you agree with his views. Example: “Wow, you’re really angry with your boss. I can see how upset you are.” After listening and acknowledging, ask if there is any way you can help. In many cases, the other person will say that you have helped just by listening. You also might be able to assist with brainstorming and problem solving. But if you try to solve the problem before hearing the person out or without his approval, he most likely will feel angrier. WHEN THE ANGER IS DIRECTED AT YOU When someone lashes out at you, the primitive part of your brain is activated. This creates the impulse to defend yourself from attack by telling the other person he is wrong or irrational or by getting angry yourself. Instead, before responding, pause for a few moments and silently ask yourself four questions… 1. Is this situation important? 2. Is my reaction appropriate? 3. Is the situation modifiable? 4. If so, is taking action worth it? To remember the four questions when you are under stress, use the partial acronym I AM WORTH IT. I stands for Important… AM stands for Appropriate and Modifiable… WORTH IT, of course, stands for the last question. If the answer to all four questions is “yes,” then assert yourself by telling the person… •Exactly what he is doing. •How it makes you feel. •What, specifically, you would like him to do differently. Keep your voice fairly quiet and your tone neutral. Describe behavior, not motives or personal characteristics. Example: My wife used this technique when I came home in a bad mood at the end of a tough day. Virginia was preparing dinner. On the kitchen counter was a big stack of mail-order catalogs that she had promised to look through a few days earlier. I snapped, “What are these damn catalogs doing here?” Virginia didn’t say a word for about 20 seconds. Then she replied calmly, “Redford, you just walked into the kitchen and said, ‘What are these damn catalogs doing here?’’ (She told me what I had done.) I came home early to make dinner, and now, I am feeling hurt, unappreciated and, frankly, angry at you. (She told me how it made her feel.) Would it be possible for you to come home at the end of the day and not have the first words out of your mouth be something critical?” (What she would like me to do.) I turned around, walked out of the kitchen, came back in and said, “Mmm, smells good. What’s for supper?” When I first arrived home, Virginia could have fueled an argument by snapping back, “What’s the matter with you, coming home and criticizing me?” Instead, during those 20 seconds of silence, she asked herself the four questions. Then she made a specific observation and a request for change. If you need to respond to an angry outburst in a setting where expressing personal feelings is not appropriate—for example, at work—use a results-oriented word, such as “helpful.” Example: “Bill, you just told me that my marketing idea for the new product is the stupidest thing you ever heard. I need to let you know that calling my suggestion stupid isn’t helpful. If you could give me some of the reasons you think it won’t work, I’d appreciate it.” If your answer to any of the four I AM WORTH IT questions gets a “no”—focus on controlling your reaction. Don’t say anything to the person. Instead, if the situation isn’t important or can’t be changed, say to yourself, “Hey, it’s not that important,” or “There’s nothing I can do to change this guy.” If requesting change isn’t appropriate or worth it, you can distract yourself by thinking about something pleasant or doing something else… or by taking a few deep breaths and thinking the word “calm” as you inhale and “down” as you exhale. This is not the same as passively giving in. You are evaluating the situation and making a rational decision. How to Handle a Crabby Person Certainly the terrible economy is partly to blame, but it seems to me that we’re in the midst of an epidemic of grouchiness. In these tough times, everyday life too often includes some crabby encounter — with a store clerk who gestures gruffly when you ask where to find the soup… a customer service rep who ignores you … or a doctor’s assistant who scolds you for not bringing the right records. Tempting as it may be to respond to rudeness with an uncivil retort, it’s best to resist. A counterattack or criticism (“You don’t have to be nasty!” or “What an attitude!”) only makes an irritable person angrier and escalates the tension… whereas staying cool keeps your blood pressure down and increases your chances of getting that person to do what you want. Your self-control may benefit others around you, too, even if they are not directly involved. Recent studies show that just witnessing rudeness can ruin a bystander’s good mood and measurably reduce his or her creativity and performance. Here’s how to handle a crab without snapping back or feeling like a doormat… Ignore the crankiness and conduct business as usual — unemotionally. Remind yourself that refusing to be dragged down into someone’s unpleasant state of mind is a true sign of inner strength… and that another person’s bad behavior need not lead you to compromise your own code of conduct. Connect with your inner calm — for instance, by patting your heart area lightly (as if comforting an upset child)… or by imagining yourself feeling the same serenity as the most peaceful person you can think of (such as the Dalai Lama). When you feel relaxed and fulfilled, you are less reactive to others. Paint a picture in your mind that explains how miserable the crabby person is feeling. Instead of taking churlishness personally, mentally walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. Perhaps her child is home sick… she can’t pay her mortgage… or her husband is threatening divorce. It’s hard to get mad at someone who is suffering. It doesn’t matter whether your imagined scenario is true — it will still help you stay calm. Commiserate with the crab to defuse tension. A good-natured acknowledgment of the annoying situation — “It must be tough to be the only cashier when there are so many customers” — helps the grouchy person see you as an ally instead of an adversary. Share your own misery. Mentioning that you had a frustrating day and apologizing if you seem short-tempered can make the crab feel “not alone” in his foul mood — and might even elicit some sympathy. When all else fails, walk away. If you do reach your boiling point and feel on the verge of taking out your pent-up emotions on the crabby person, retire from the fray. Find someone more pleasant to deal with… or, if you must interact with this particular person, excuse yourself and return later after connecting with your inner calm.