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How to Handle Difficult People

You know how certain people leave you tongue-tied or frequently seem to best you in arguments? They need to dominate or “win” every discussion—when you didn’t even know there was a battle going on. The more you go at it, the more your frustration grows, leaving you feeling helpless, frustrated and emotionally drained.

The solution is to change the focus of your response and redirect the conversation by making a comment or asking a question about the process or dynamics occurring rather than by addressing content. To put yourself in the driver’s seat, instead of responding to a statement or question by responding to what a person is saying, address only what’s going on between you by questioning his or her motivation or the way he or she is coming across. Here’s an example. Note how a process response disrupts the pattern and shifts the power of the discussion.

SOMEONE: I definitely want to go to the movies

YOU (content response): We went to the movies last week and the week before. I want to get out and listen to music.

SOMEONE: I want to go to the movies. It’s the movies or I’m not going out.

YOU (content response): But there’s a really good jazz group playing nearby. I thought you said you like them.

SOMEONE: Don’t waste your breath. I told you, I don’t want to listen to music.

YOU: (process response): Why must you always get your way? Would you like it if I always insisted that we do what I want? This is getting us nowhere. I’ll go out and listen to music myself.

Can you see how, in this case, you finally comment on or question the dynamics between the two of you? Use this strategy when you: feel that someone is trying to bait you, receive double messages from someone (yes/but or help me/don’t help me), or have been down this discussion road oodles of times and want to take a different route. You can comment on what’s going on between you or someone’s motivation. Here are some examples of content versus process responses:

SOMEONE: I can’t believe you’re eating that candy.

YOU:

(content) Well, I didn’t eat a lot today. I’m hungry.

(content) I know I shouldn’t be eating this.

(process) It’s my business what I eat.

(process) It’s not okay for you to make comments about what I eat.

(process) Why are you so invested in what I eat? Keep your eyes on your own plate.

(process) I have no intention of defending to you what I eat or don’t eat.

SOMEONE: Why don’t you ever go to church with me? Other children go with their parents.

YOU:

(content) I’ve told you a thousand times, I don’t believe there’s a God.

(content) I don’t like church.

(process) Why do you keep asking me when it only makes us argue?

(process) I’ll respect your belief when you respect my lack of belief.

(process) Stop trying to talk me into doing what you want me to do.

(process) Why are you so angry that I don’t believe as you do even though I’m an adult?

SOMEONE: My husband said awful things to me again. What should I do?

YOU

(content) Why don’t you go to therapy as I’ve suggested often before?

(content) That’s just terrible. What a terrible man.

(process) Here we go again. No matter what I suggest, you don’t do it.

(process) You sound very ambivalent about what you want to do about your husband.

(process) I’m confused why you ask for my help, then don’t follow it.

It takes a while to get the hang of what to say. It’s probably time for a process comment whenever you feel helpless or backed into a corner, frustrated that someone isn’t listening to you, or angry at being attacked. The goal is to shift the focus from what you’re talking about to why someone is saying something or how they’re making you feel. Keep practicing and you’ll see how useful this strategy can be and how much less stress you experience when you employ it with difficult people.

Working with clients on specific situations, sometimes we script out potential process comments they can make (with family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.) and then role-play what they might say. Usually, the first time around, they play the difficult person and I play the client in order to illustrate what could be said. Then we switch roles. Find someone to practice with or simply practice in your head and you’ll get the hang (and fun) of it.

Best,

Karen

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