Whether it’s a coworker, family member, neighbor or acquaintance, you’ve likely dealt with someone who has offended you, hurt your feelings or rubbed you the wrong way. Being around difficult people—whether they ask inappropriate questions, put you down, try to stir up controversy or dominate the conversation—can take a toll on your mental health.
Lauren Liverman, LCSW, an oncology social worker at Piedmont Athens Regional, shares how to compassionately and respectfully deal with the difficult people in your life.
How to practice compassion with difficult people
It can be hard to do, but start with compassion by considering the other person’s life experiences. By knowing more about this person, you can understand where they’re coming from and be less activated by their comments. Maybe they’re projecting into their social space what they’ve tried to overcome.
“This can be helpful because when we know more about a person’s story and circumstances, we might be able to find more compassion,” says Liverman. “A yoga instructor once said to me, ‘Sometimes leaning in instead of leaning back will help you find compassion when interacting with someone who’s challenging.’”
Consider what triggers you when dealing with a difficult person
Liverman recommends asking yourself, “What is going inside of me that’s being activated by this person’s personality?”
“Approach this with gentleness, compassion and curiosity,” she says. “In the moment, you do the best you can to deal with the situation. Later, when you have time to reflect, looking at the interaction with gentle curiosity is key. You’re more likely to get to the core issue and understand how best to approach future interactions from a place of compassion.”
Prepare for interactions in advance
Like you would prepare for a big presentation or event, you can prepare if you know you must interact with a challenging person. What can you do for yourself so you’re approaching that interaction as your best self? Perhaps you can journal your feelings, call a supportive friend or do some deep breathing before interacting with that person.
How to gracefully change the subject
Some people want to stir the pot and may not do so with civility. Liverman recommends changing the subject if they start a conversation that isn’t serving your mental health.
“People often like to talk about themselves,” she says. “Is there something you can ask about to get them to go in a different direction?”
What to do when someone dominates the conversation
If you’re in a conversation where the other person does most of the talking, it can be helpful to set boundaries in advance.
“Find a moment to speak up and say, ‘I’m going to have to go in three minutes,’” says Liverman. “Set that up within the context of the conversation so you don’t get stuck in a conversation with someone who is going to take it over.”
What to do when someone asks inappropriate questions
When someone asks you a question that makes you uncomfortable, Liverman recommends responding directly and compassionately.
“You can say, ‘That’s a very personal topic and I’m not comfortable talking about it right now. I prefer to talk about something else,’” she suggests. “You can do this in a gentle way. It doesn’t have to be confrontational.”
Sometimes the only thing you can control is your response to a difficult person. And remember, how they treat you is an indication of what’s going on in their world.
“What they say is a reflection on their life, growth and blind spots, not yours,” says Liverman.
Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.