Six ways to tackle difficult and unreasonable people without losing your cool

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Anna Brech
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We all encounter difficult people in our lives, whether it's a negative colleague, an overbearing friend or a resentful family member.

Knowing how to deal with these individuals is one of the subtler arts of communication.

Not only do we have to know the right way to tackle each person based on their behaviour, we also have to deploy our response in a way that will diffuse rather than escalate the problem. 

And we need to do all this without rising to the bait or losing our cool. 

It's not easy but it can be done and once you've mastered it, it will be a lifelong skill that will help you ignore the naysayers and stay in control, no matter what the situation.

Here are five simple tips for tackling difficult and unreasonable people:

Separate the person from the issue 

"In every communication situation, there are two elements present: The relationship you have with this person, and the issue you are discussing," says communication coach Preston Ni. "An effective communicator knows how to separate the person from the issue, and be soft on the person and firm on the issue.

"When we’re soft on the person, people are more open to what we have to say. When we’re firm on the issue, we show ourselves as strong problem solvers."

By separating the two facets out, you make it less personal, are more likely to elicit understanding from the person involved and can get to the heart of the problem more directly.

Example: "I really want you to come with us. Unfortunately, if you’re going to be late like the last few times, we’ll have to leave without you,"

Put the spotlight on them

Difficult people typically have strong opinions, and they often try to make you feel inadequate by pointing out what's wrong with you. If you simply respond by being defensive ("no, I'm not!") you risk escalating the stand-off and encourage the negative approach underlying it.

Instead of giving that person more power over the conversation, move to gain control by putting the spotlight back on them. Respond to their statements and assertions by asking questions. This not only takes the wind out of their ability to be domineering, it may also help them see the issues with their own position in a less confrontational way.

Example: "Why do you think I want you to turn down your music? Do you think it's an unreasonable request?"

Be upfront but don't be drawn in

"Some people are not very self-aware so maybe you just need to tell them constructively what the problem is or what you need from them," says workplace expert Corrine Mills. "For instance, if a colleague is making barbed comments in your direction, then take them to one side, and ask them why. They'll either be apologetic as they genuinely didn't realise it was a problem, or they'll make some excuse or even try to counter-accuse. Either way, they'll know it will be risky for them to attempt this again without you hauling them up on it and perhaps escalating it further."

That said, try to avoid being dragged down by another person's problems. Have a frank discussion, but put a time limit on it and be kind but firm about enforcing it. You need to maintain a positive space around you. And don't agree just to appease someone, or worse, stay silent. "It’s tempting to try to appease Debbie Downer to make him or her stop and go away," says life coach Kevin Kruse. "As the person complains about benefits or the boss or whatever, you might be inclined to give a little nod of your head or a quiet 'yeah' or shrug a 'what can we do?' Even though these responses seem harmless, they just throw fuel on the flames."

Example: "I'm so glad we had a chance to discuss this problem and I appreciate you listening to me. It would be great to hear what you have to say about it." (give a five-minute window for venting, then cut off with a "thanks. I think that's enough for now"). 

Disarm them with a less direct approach

Sometimes sitting down and having a frank conversation with someone won't work and it's best to come at their behaviour from a different, more roundabout angle. This is especially true of repeat offenders. If they're not aggressive but merely negative or prone to rants, you could try pouring honey on the situation. "Pouring on too much honey can actually have an adverse effect," says psychologist Donna M. White. "However, with just the right amount, this is the perfect de-escalating technique. Keeping this in mind not only keeps you calm, but often is calming to the other individual. When you are pleasant, it becomes very difficult for the other individual to remain escalated and frustrated."

You could also try helping that person focus on something positive, rather than aiming to solve a problem right then and there. "I know my depressed friend will rant about life’s injustices as long as I let her," says Lori Deschene, of the blog "I can listen compassionately for a short while and then help her focus on something positive right now, in this moment. I can ask about her upcoming birthday. I can remind her it’s a beautiful day for a walk."

And another great tactic is humour. If used appropriately, this can diffuse the anger of a difficult person and make them aware of their own bad behaviour. It will also pacify a tense scenario and help re-gain perspective of it. But be wary of sarcasm, which can come across as biting and passive aggressive.  

Example: A teacher gives this example. Child to teacher "Holy shit!", teacher to child "Which denomination?" (then follows up with a gentle word on the use of language). 

Switch extremes into facts

Difficult people tend to exaggerate their views by using absolutes such as "never" or "always". Make sure you always counter these with a true, rational assessment of the facts. This is true whether you're talking on a personal basis or about someone else.

It will help take the temperature down a degree or two and replace emotion with a cool-headed assessment of what the situation truly is. This in turn will give you more control over the difficult person, and move you both forward to a position where you can analyze and solve the problem at hand. 

Example: "I understand you're frustrated. I know I've been home late the past two evenings but I was actually on time all of last week. So you mean I've been late back recently rather than always, right?"

Always confront aggression head-on

The only way to deal with aggression is to move to shut it down straight away. If someone is shouting or behaving in a bulling manner, clearly and state clearly that you cannot talk until that person has calmed down. End the conversation, walk away and if necessary, report their behaviour to your boss or the authorities.

"The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker, so as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target," says communication coach Preston Ni. "Many bullies are also cowards on the inside. When their victims begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments."

"When confronting bullies, be sure to place yourself in a position where you can safely protect yourself, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of the bully’s inappropriate behaviour."

Example: "I can't speak to you when you're shouting at me like that. Let's re-visit this when you have calmed down."

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: ThinkStock

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.