How do you deal with someone else’s difficult behaviour ? What do you do when things go wrong? Looking for support around managing relationships is one of the most common reasons people come to counselling. Humans are social animals so if one or more of our relationships is going through a difficult patch, it can greatly affect how we feel. ALL our relationships are important to us at least on some level – including partners, close and not so close family members, friends and neighbours and work colleagues.
We often don’t question our relationships until something goes wrong. We might ignore the difficulties hoping that they will go away, we might see what we can do to fix things, we might step back for a while to give ourselves and the other person a bit of space or in extreme cases, we might even break off a relationship permanently.
This blog looks at some broad general strategies we can use when we find ourselves in conflict with another person. Future blogs will look at what we can do if we find ourselves dealing with very difficult behaviour patterns in people, including those who might be described as narcissists.
What we can learn from the experts
Professional crisis intervention teams (who work in health services, law enforcement etc) use particular tactics to deal with difficult people. It is well worth learning these and keeping them in mind whether you are dealing with an irate boss, a customer, a family member, even a stranger. (Obviously the closer your relationship the person, the more knowledge you’ll have of what will best work to calm things down so you can adapt the strategies accordingly.)
1. Engage your rational brain!
First of all consider how it feels when you are in a situation of conflict where you think the other person is behaving unreasonably. The fear (and possibly the anger) response in your brain and nervous system is going to be activated and it is essential for you to engage your calm rational mind in order to defuse the situation.Try to take some slow, deep breaths. Stand firm, or sit up straight in your chair with your feet flat on the floor so you feel grounded and in control of your feelings and thoughts. This is the only way you will be able to control your response and be effective. However, it is not always easy!
Listening is the number one step in dealing with difficult people and difficult behaviour. No progress can take place until the other person feels acknowledged. Focus on what the other person is saying, not what you want to say next. Are they frightened? Upset? Angry? Confused? Vulnerable? What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid? Ask the other person what exactly he or she is upset about, in order to show that you are interested in communicating rather than in arguing. The burden of responsibility is now back on them.
3. Agree with a kernel of truth
After listening to the initial venting of feelings, go ahead and agree with a kernel of truth in the complaint. You are looking for one small fact about which the critic is correct—and then agreeing with that single point. For example, if your boss criticises that way you handled a project, you might agree with one discreet example (if it is accurate), but politely correct her over-generalisation.
4. Reflect respect and dignity toward the other person
No matter how a person is treating you, showing contempt will not help productively resolve the situation. Responding with equally unreasonable or angry statements will only escalate things.
5. Look for others around you who might be able to help
If you’re at work and there’s an irate customer, quickly scan to see if a colleague is close by. If you are out at night and being challenged by an angry stranger, see if there are other people who might come to your aid if needed.
6. Don’t demand compliance
Our immediate thought is to get the other person to calm down but quite often telling someone who is very upset to be quiet and calm down will just make him or her even more upset. Instead, ask the person what they are upset about—and allow them to vent if necessary. Saying, “I understand” too quickly can make things worse. Instead, say, “Tell me more so I can understand better.”
7. Avoid smiling
Many of us tend to smile to try to defuse a difficult situation but when someone is highly aroused, this can come across as mocking the person. Humour can sometimes lighten the mood, but should be used with great care and with a good sense of timing – more often than not, it’s risky and may backfire.
8. Don’t go into defensive mode
This is tough but remember, this is not about you. Don’t take difficult behaviour personally. Equally don’t respond with anger or try to argue back. Raising your voice, pointing your finger, or insulting the other person will add fuel to an already heated situation. Use a low, calm voice and don’t try to talk over the person. Try not to interrupt but wait until the person takes a breath and then speak. To cope with difficult behaviours in those around you, you need to learn to question your automatic defensive philosophies, such as “I will not be treated that way; I won’t let you get away with this” and “My reputation is on the line if I fail.”
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
See also: Powerful Ways to Control Anger, Controlling your Anger