HOW TO HANDLE STRESSFUL PEOPLE
How to Handle Stressful People By Kissy Naude The path to peace and calm can be derailed by clashes with difficult people. Everyone has a store of coping mechanisms that we resort to when we find ourselves in stressful situations. Difficult people force us to fall back on our coping mechanisms. Some of us placate, others confront. Some balk, others become aggressive. When these first-response tactics don't work, when a difficult person makes you tear your hair out in total frustration, you have to dig deeper into yourself and find a better strategy. First of all, not every difficult person is the same. There are tyrants, curmudgeons, aggressors, the viciously competitive, and control freaks. A psychologist can outline how each beast might be tamed, but on a day-to-day basis, one can adopt a general approach that's the same. It's quite a simple strategy, actually, based on asking three questions: 1. Can I change the situation? 2. Do I have to put up with it instead? 3. Should I just walk away? When you ask these questions in a rational frame of mind, you will be able to formulate a workable approach that is consistent and effective. Most people are prisoners of inconsistency. Think about the most difficult person in your life and how you have reacted to them over time. You'll probably find that you sometimes put up with them, sometimes try to get them to change, and other times simply want to stay away. In other words, three tactics have merged in a messy way. You wind up sending mixed messages, and that's never effective. So let's consider each of the three questions in turn. 1. Can I change the situation? Not all difficult people are beyond change, even though they are stubborn and stuck in their behavior. But there's a cardinal rule here that can't be ignored: no one changes unless he wants to. Difficult people rarely want to. If you have a close rapport with the person, you might find a moment when you can sit down and have a candid discussion about the things that frustrate you. But be prepared with an exit strategy, because if your difficult person winds up resenting you for poking your nose where it doesn't belong, trying to effect change can seriously backfire. Your best chance of creating change occurs if the following things are present: You have a personal connection with the person. You have earned his respect. You've discreetly tested the waters and found her a bit open to change. You've received signals that he wants to change. You aren't afraid or intimidated. The two of you are fairly equal in power. If the difficult person is in a dominant position, such as being your boss, your status is too imbalanced. A final caveat: difficult people aren't going to change just to make you feel better. The worst chance of getting someone else to change occurs when you're so angry, frustrated, and fed up that you lose your composure and demand change. 2. Do I have to put up with it instead? When you can't change a situation, only two options remain: either put up with it or walk away. Most of us aren't very effective in getting someone else to change, so we adapt in various ways. We are experts at putting up with things. Adaptation isn't bad per se; social life depends upon getting along with one another. It's a reasonable assumption that if you have difficult people in your life right now – and who doesn't? – you've learned to adapt. The real question is whether you are coping in a healthy or unhealthy way. Look at the following lists and honestly ask yourself how well you are putting up with your difficult person. Unhealthy: I keep quiet and let them have their way. It's not worth fighting over. I complain behind their backs. I shut down emotionally. I don't say what I really mean half the time, for fear of getting into trouble or losing control. I subtly signal my disapproval. I engage in endless arguments that no one wins. I have symptoms of stress (headache, knots in the stomach, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) but have decided to grin and bear it. I know I want to get out of this situation, but I keep convincing myself that I have to stick it out. I indulge in fantasies of revenge. Healthy: I assess what works best for me and avoid what doesn't. I approach the difficult person as rationally as possible. I don't get into emotional drama with them. I make sure I am respected by them. I keep my dignity. I can see the insecurity that lies beneath the surface of their bad behavior. I don't dwell on their behavior. I don't complain behind their backs or lose sleep. I keep away from anyone who can't handle the situation – the perpetual complainers, gossips, and connivers. My interaction with the difficult person has no hidden agenda, like revenge. We are here for mutual benefit, not psychodrama. I know I can walk away whenever I have to, so I don't feel trapped. I can laugh behind this person's back. I'm not intimidated or afraid. I feel genuine respect and admiration for what's good in this person. If your approach contains too many unhealthy ingredients, you shouldn't stick around. You're just rationalizing a hopeless situation. Your relationship with your difficult person isn't productive for either of you. 3. Should I just walk away? Difficult people generally wind up alone, embattled, and bitter. They create too much stress, and one by one, everyone in their lives walks away. But it can take an agonizingly long time to make this decision. The problem is attachment. The abused wife who can't leave her violent husband, the worker who is afraid he can't find another job, the underling who serves as a doormat for his boss – in almost every instance their reason for staying is emotional. Life isn't meant to be clinically rational. Emotions are a rich part of our lives, and it's mature to take the bitter with the sweet – up to a point. Too many people stick around when they shouldn't. The main exceptions are competitive types, who can't bear to be dominated or made to look bad. They instinctively run away from situations that hurt their self-image. The other main personality types – dependent and controlling – will put up with a bad situation for a long time, far beyond what's healthy. The point, in practical terms, is that you can't wait until you've resolved all your issues with a difficult spouse, boss, boyfriend, buddy, colleague, or employee. Vacillation doesn't make you a better or nicer person. You are treading water, hoping that the dreaded day will never come when you have to sever ties. The thought of separation causes you anxiety. But as anxious as you feel, sometimes a rupture is the healthiest thing you can do. That’s the case if you have honestly confronted questions 1 and 2. If you know the difficult person isn't going to change, and if you've examined the unhealthy and healthy choices involved in putting up with them, you have a good foundation for making the right choice: Do I stay or do I walk? I'm not promising that your decision will feel nice. It probably won't. But it will be the right decision, the kind you will be able to look back on with a sigh of relief and recognition that moving on was healthy and productive.