Wisdom//

10 Creative Ways to Handle Rude or Difficult People

These strategies will help you stay calm and avoid absorbing their negativity.

tujuh17belas/Shutterstock
tujuh17belas/Shutterstock

Let’s talk about interacting with people who push your buttons. You know who we’re talking about — the co-worker who always has something negative to say, a colleague who has a habit of lashing out, and similar people who bring your mood and energy levels down.

In an episode of Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, Sheila Heen, a conflict mediation expert who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School, advised us to approach angry or rude people from a place of curiosity, rather than lashing back in the moment. When you do that, “the conversation isn’t about, you know, letting her have it, and straightening her out and letting her know she shouldn’t be an asshole next time,” she said. “The conversation is about, ‘Now I’m just curious what was going on with you. Because I was surprised by it, and we should address it so that we just won’t have this problem next time.’ That’s an orientation that is much more likely to produce a better conversation and to solve the problem — if it’s solvable.”

For more specific strategies that have worked, we asked members of the Thrive Global community to share their best tips for dealing with difficult people. Here’s their advice.

Speak calmly and clearly

“In my experience, the best approach is remaining as poised as possible — especially when you’re dealing with aggressive behavior! Keep your cool with these three habits: Breathe slowly, speak clearly, and ask questions that will prompt the other person to reflect on what they’re saying. If the conversation doesn’t come to a sensible, respectful close, it’s time for you take control by saying something like, ‘I have a feeling this conversation isn’t very constructive — we’re not making any headway. How about we schedule some time to work on this topic next week?’ This shows that you’re professional, solution-oriented, and collaborative.”

—Christine Homolko, communications manager, Luxembourg, Europe

Lead with love, not fear

“My approach is inspired by Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love. Whenever I’m confronted with a person I perceive as difficult, I try to remember to lead with love — not from a place of fear. When I look at someone through the lens that their behavior is a call for love, I can respond from my own loving nature, as opposed to from my fear and darkness. It’s a powerful shift that can change your life.”

—Chris Rackliffe, motivational writer and speaker, New York, NY

Don’t make it personal

“Don’t take it personally. No matter how they act, or what they say to or about you, it’s really not about you. It’s about them, what they’re going through, and how they’re handling it. So do your best to remain calm and professional in your interactions. That being said, a little compassion goes a long way.”

—Margaret Meloni, PhD, author, Long Beach, CA

Breathe in before responding

“I take a deep breath, feel where their words resonate in my body (heart or gut), and remember my values list which leads me to my ‘best self.’ I then say something like, ‘I need a moment to think about that’ before responding to let my emotions simmer down enough so I can check in with my personal values list. It features kindness, respect and responsibility. Then I answer from there. This process sparks reactions from my heart and head — the best part of me.”   

—Georgina Cannon, author, counselor, Toronto, Canada

Radiate kindness, not negativity

“Negativity brings my energy down very quickly, so I can relate to those who also have a hard time dealing with it. My best advice is to ‘kill them with kindness,’ so to speak. I always try to remember that people are only nasty because they’re dealing with pain themselves. So try to take their negativity as a sign that they need some love, and aim to talk one-on-one more often so you can establish a connection that they likely need.”  

—Courtney Cannon-Booth, branding expert, Los Angeles, CA

Reframe their words

“I’ve definitely been someone who has let negative thoughts simmer in my head and stayed in a bad mood. But I’ve recently been trying to put a different spin on what was said, and make it into something more positive or manageable to think about. Once someone told me that if a certain plan didn’t go well, it was going to be on me. Right away I said, ‘I’d rather be positive about it and think that if everything goes well, it’s going to look good.’ That made it easier to walk away from the conversation without making the other person feel bad, and helped me feel positive. I’m a work in progress, but it’s a step in the right direction!”

—Kathryn Djordjevic, pharmacist, Ontario, Canada

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

“Excusing yourself from the confronting conversation so you can take a breath and recalibrate will give you the time to consider where this person is coming from. Even if you fully disagree with what they’re saying, you can ask yourself, ‘Why are they saying this?’ What are they feeling?’ If we’re able to see where a person comes from, and start viewing them as human, rather than difficult, we can approach conversations and situations from a clearer standpoint.”

—Emilia Francesca, life and mindset coach, London, England

Gently shine a light on their behavior

“In order to physically and mentally protect yourself from aggressive communicators, I recommend distancing: watching them as if you’re viewing them from the future or in a movie. It prevents you from being sucked into their bad energy and helps you respond with either sarcasm or curiosity, e.g., ‘So you’ve decided to go with the vinegar instead of honey approach? Is negativity supplying you with everything you want? Fascinating.’ You could also say, ‘What’s going on with the mean comments?’ Not that it needs to become a therapy session, but shining a light on their behavior in a calm voice will often shake someone out of it, at least temporarily.  

—Pam Reece, communications consultant, New York, NY

Remember, only you can control your reaction

“When someone intentionally or unintentionally pushes your buttons, it’s important to remember that all you can control is your own reaction. Getting worked up over how right you are, and how wrong the other person is can easily escalate, and cause you to sink to an equally difficult level. Taking a deep breath and asking yourself how you want to come across in the situation will help turn your reaction into the right response.”

—Emily Davis, public relations professional, Chicago, IL

Put negative vibes in an imaginary box

“I used to struggle when dealing with negative people. First I wanted to ‘fix’ them by trying to shift them into a more positive mindset. But this eats up a lot of energy. Once I realized that we can’t fix others, I desperately wanted to avoid them. Since this often isn’t possible in a work environment, we need tools to avoid absorbing their energy. So now I’m able to view their struggle as theirs alone, and feel some empathy for their obvious misery. I place the negative vibes in an imaginary box, close it, and go about my day. It works!”

—Susan J. Hilger, life and leadership coach, St. Petersburg, FL

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