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Rules, Power, Anger and Control: How to Deal with Difficult People

29/01/2015 15:51 GMT | Updated 30/03/2015 10:59 BST

"You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them," says Rick Kirschner, N.D., coauthor of Dealing with People You Can't Stand.

"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill." - Gichin Funakoshi, father of modern Karate

Jacklyn worked as a legal secretary. It was a shark tank of aggressive, competitive lawyers who to say the least were misogynous, sexually inappropriate and demanding. She needed the job desperately and yet was totally turned off by the temper tantrums, insensitivity and overall boorishness of the legal team. She was trapped in a hostile work environment. She didn't know what to do.

Many of us have been involved in work or family interactions with very difficult people and there is, at times, no real way out. What to do? Can we confront them, try to be more difficult than they are, fight the good fight or can we simply go to the boss or the person we are having a conflict with, report the problem and get justice? With the notable exceptions of sexual abuse and harassment that must be reported, there are some options that should be considered if we are to resolve the true difficulty of some people.

In popular psychology the advice is to sit down and discuss the problem with the person and come up with some viable solutions to thorny issues. Experience has taught me that if there is a rational conversation to be had, then it would not be happening in the first place. The problem lies in how to deal with people who are not rational. With difficult people, the sitting down and discussing part will go south really fast.

So, what are some ways to deal with people we have to interact with on a daily or certainly weekly basis? An aging parent, an intolerant boss, a business partner or a close friend who has gone off the rails. What to do?

Here are some tips for dealing with difficult people.

1. You cannot change anyone.

2. Trying to bring your perspective to the situation will not solve the problem because difficult people can only see a situation one way, their way.

3. Confrontation is often the worse choice. So trying to "straighten" the other person out usually does the opposite, it only intensifies their position.

4. The best course to set the tone by behaving in a manner that is clear, steady, even and reasonable. Humor, cordiality, professionalism, empathy and compassion helps.

5. Pick your spots. Waiting for the right moment (which may never come by the way) may be the only means by which resolutions can be made.

6. Don't try to be their friend.

7. Don't suck up or be fake.

8. It is paramount that we decide who we are and who we want to be and then operate from that position rather than trying to affect them with words. Actions speak louder.

9. Take care of yourself. Whatever you need to do, keep your door closed or shave off as much time with them as possible to get the job done. Get rest, eat right and exercise. Try to not criticize yourself for a situation that you can't control.

10. Difficult people stimulate our personal issues. "Ask yourself: How is this person holding up the mirror to me?" suggests Sandra Crowe, author of Since Strangling Isn't an Option. For example, Jacklyn came to value the difficulty with her colleagues because they stimulated her deeper issues and helped her find a new way of responding.

When we feel wronged by difficult people, instead of focusing on what is being done to us, try looking at the situation from a broader perspective and consider what we are doing to them. To find that perspective it's valuable to focus on what is bothering them or what have we may have done to upset them rather than from simply being reactive. In this way we can take a proactive approach rather than reacting. The best attitude is to be firm but not hard, calm but not submissive, clear but not pushy.

Our natural tendency is to work things out, to react to negative attention and to hit back when we feel wronged. Working with difficult people is essentially counter intuitive. Whatever we naturally want to do is usually the opposite of what we actually need to do. Digging deep into our true nature, our own darkness and then be the kind of person we most admire in the face of what others do is the key. The more we have worked through our own anger, shame and insecurities the more ability we gain to deal effectively with difficult people. The key is to swim upstream with our integrity intact and to know how to respond to the gambit of what difficult people do to us as we encounter them in this world. Being true to our best self and not bending to the behavior of others with our own bad behavior is in the truest sense our best defense.