How to Talk to Difficult People . . . and Be Glad You Did

How to deal with toxic people

Have you ever been stuck working with a colleague who was so short-tempered, gossipy, untrustworthy, or otherwise toxic that you dreaded your interactions . . . or even going to work?

Or maybe the thorn in your side is the relative that you have to contend with at every family get-together, who has no problem telling you about all the things you’re doing wrong in your life. 

Even though we ultimately retain the option to include or exclude people from our lives, sometimes practical, financial, familial, or other reasons keep us connected with difficult people. But while they’re unpleasant, social interactions like these don’t need to be entirely negative. 

Conflict as an opportunity for personal growth

That’s because difficult, emotionally-charged conversations can help you learn distress tolerance. They are a chance to practice listening and empathy. They allow you to train as a relational ninja, perfecting communication skills that are wise, healthy, and effective at defusing conflict and will also help you be heard and respected.

Following are a few tips for how to start transforming your difficult relationships into fuel for your personal growth. The beliefs and assumptions that you carry into your interactions determine your behaviors, so we’ll start with cultivating a mindset that is open to new possibilities.

1. Most people don’t try to cause people pain. 

Yes, some people enjoy hurting people, but the vast majority of people don’t get up in the morning looking to do that. You’ve hurt people yourself, and you’re a good person, right? So what’s going on?

Most people don't want to hurt people

Well, what we all do have is a powerful, primitive desire to feel safe and secure, and lots of experiences in our daily lives that can trigger us to feel unsafe or insecure. These include fear, of course, but also embarrassment, insecurity in one’s career, transitional periods, absence of praise, reminders of past injuries, and many more. 

When the discomfort of insecurity gets too intense, it can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with it wisely, and that’s when problems begin. Their reptilian brain reacts with a short-term solution—lashing out at you, invalidating you, or telling you that you should stop gaining weight if you ever want to get married—that just causes more pain for themselves or others down the road. 

Now, just because your tormentor is in pain, or because you’ve also hurt people before, doesn’t mean that we should condone hurtful behavior. 

I’m just suggesting that you acknowledge that pain begets causing pain, and see if there’s anything in that person’s process that you can relate to, from firsthand experience. If you can approach the interaction with even this little bit of empathy, then you have the opportunity to engage differently this time. 

There’s a strategic element here, too: if you can understand what’s causing the person to feel afraid or insecure, then you might be able to say or do things to help them feel better . . . and perhaps call off the attack dogs. 

2. Reflective listening goes a long way. 

Reflective listening means repeating back to a person what they have told you, but using your own words. Not adding commentary, judgment, or a rebuttal, but simply reflecting what you’ve heard, and then checking in to make sure you got it right.

For example: 

Uncle Ned: “You’ve been talking about this project of yours for years, but you never seem to get anywhere with it. You need to stop being lazy and get your act together!”

You: “It sounds like you’d prefer that I was making faster progress in my efforts. Is that right?” 

This type of response is so simple, yet so rare. More often, people plan a rebuttal or counterattack while the other person is speaking. So, neither person is really listening to the other, and both are responding like adversaries, keeping the other person on the defensive. Very unproductive and unpleasant. 

Using reflective listening with difficult people

Reflective listening helps you practice being a grounded, present, and responsive (versus reactive) person, and giving a gift of presence and attunement that helps the other person feel worthy of your consideration.

Now, you may think I’m nuts to suggest being generous to your tormentor in this way but, like the previous tip, doing this gives you a strategic advantage as well. 

You can see and feel people soften when they’re reflected to. They feel safer, so they’re more likely to get out of attack mode and drop their guard. In fact, thanks to the power of reciprocity, they’re might feel obligated to make an attempt to understand where you’re coming from, too. 

Be aware that the other person might be taken aback the first time you reflectively listen. They might even think it’s a trick! But stick with it and see for yourself what benefits it can produce in your difficult relationships. 

Now, in keeping with pleasantly surprising your difficult person, while also doing something strategic and good for you . . . 

3. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” or “I’m sorry.” 

I see lots of problems stemming from stating opinions (especially poorly-informed opinions) as facts. Why not own your opinions as such, support them with facts when possible, and cop to not knowing, when you don’t know? 

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When you get something wrong, why not admit it, rather than trying to cover it up, deflect, or avoid it some other way? 

If you caused harm by your error, and you wish you hadn’t, why not apologize, even if that means admitting fault to someone who’s just itching to find fault with you?

Of course, the answer to all of these “why nots” is that admitting that we were wrong can cause us to feel unsafe and insecure. It opens us up to criticism and runs afoul of the “impression management” that we do as people to improve our image and gain greater acceptance from people. 

Yet, there are the realities: you’re human, you make mistakes, you hurt people sometimes, and, while you’re the expert on your own experience, you don’t know everything else also. 

You know these things to be true. So does Uncle Ned. So do your best friends. Denying the reality, then, isn’t a winning play, and it’s a waste of energy.

Your other option is to turn toward the discomfort of acknowledging shortcomings, and free yourself. I know that when I discover (or have pointed out to me) that I’m clinging to a pretense of omniscience, perfection, or just being better than another person, and then I let go of that, I feel better.

How being vulnerable can help you feel better

I reclaim the bandwidth I’ve been allocating to image, and instead settle softly and gently into imperfect, authentic Me. That’s where I’m most comfortable, centered, and therefore, powerful, anyway. 

Reciprocity comes into play here, too, in a way: when you admit a mistake or knowledge gap, people are more likely to fess up to theirs and be less aggressive. But, even if they do go in for the attack, you’ve taken the taken the fun out of it by stepping aside as an opponent. 

Of course, I’m not encouraging you to claim fault or blame that isn’t yours. Just to consider experimenting with a little vulnerability.

For example, the next thing you say to Uncle Ned in the example above might be: 

“I appreciate your concern about me and my project, and honestly, sometimes I also wish things were moving faster. However, when you complain about my progress, I feel like I’m under even more pressure, and also that you don’t fully understand the struggles I face. I’d really like to feel that I have your support and understanding instead. Can I tell you more about what it’s like for me?” 

Or something like that. 

The means is the end

Will the approach I've described here change the other person’s behavior? Maybe. It’s no less likely to produce change than responding in kind when they invalidate or belittle you though, right?

You’ve been down that path, and know where it leads. Trading barbs just amplifies the other person’s insecurity and sends them into a defensive posture too, and that’s a dead end. Instead, you have the power to stop the cycle, even a little bit at a time.

Regardless of whether that produces positive change in Uncle Ned, it will definitely help you master attunement, understanding, compassion, and empathy—the social and emotional tools of a fully-functional human being.