Deal with Difficult People? Here Are 4 Reaction Steps

Deal with Difficult People

How you can own your reactions when encountering difficult people

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series on maintaining composure and managing encounters with difficult people

Is encountering a difficult person all in the eye of the beholder? Is the person you see as rude, combative, loud, unappreciative, demanding, incompetent, ungrateful necessarily these things or is there a component of your own perception in play?

Priming Your Brain for Difficult People

Sometimes difficult people are defined as such based on the perception of the beholder. That’s not to say that people aren’t acting rude, loud, combative, and so on, but how this is perceived and how you react often has more to do with you than with the other person.

Research demonstrates that our perceptions of people and situations are routinely impacted by many factors, not the least of which are how we are feeling at the time. The nature of our brains is such that we can be primed by our recent and distant past experiences, our health, our individual personality and more. The good or bad encounter you recently had with a loved one or even a stranger can propel you to rush to judgment in the next encounter. This is why in some circumstances you may react badly and in others you may not.  It is also the same mechanism that primes us to judge people we encounter based on stereotypes or our past experiences.

You probably understand that your own perceptions play a significant role in your ability to manage people and situations. The good news is that this means you have at least some choices in how you perceive another person.

The Right Frame of Mind Impacts Composure

Perception and context are powerful contributors to our experiences. Depending on your own frame of mind, you’re generally able to demonstrate tolerance and flexibility. When you’re feeling well, are well rested and have minimal stress, you’re more able to tolerate a wider range of behaviors and stressors. An impulsive, loud, and frustrating co-worker is less so when you’re in a great mood. When you are in a poor mood or are experiencing health problems, you may perceive people as more difficult. You may react poorly to a tone of voice of an employee (or your teenager) or to how quickly (or slowly) someone follows-through on the actions you requested.

You may not be able to stop people from behaving badly, but if you can learn how to reframe your perception, you can gain better control of your own reactions and increase your odds of more effectively managing the situation.

4 Action Steps When Dealing with Difficult People

When you feel you may be experiencing a difficult encounter, consider these 4 actions to help you navigate through it.

1)    Check Yourself: Before you react to what may be a difficult person, first check what you were just thinking or feeling. If you had recently been in a difficult situation or have generally been experiencing increased stress, you need to consider how this has primed your reaction. Be aware of your own thoughts and your own physical status. Your reaction to difficulty may put you in a fight-or-flight mode. Being aware of your thoughts and emotions can help you remain in control. This will only take you a few seconds and can be well worth the effort.

2)    Get Into the Moment: Pay attention to the physical space you’re in, notice where you are by looking at the room, make an effort to feel the floor beneath your feet, listen to the sounds in the room, notice a light source or something specific. Think of your role in the situation to provide yourself with context. This can help your brain move into the current moment. You can practice this skill anytime to improve upon it.

3)    Notice the Person: Look at her demeanor, clothing, posture, and face. Sometimes you notice that what you perceived as a loud angry voice was just a person with a different type of voice. Tone of voice, choice of language and communication styles is often impacted by age, gender, culture, physical health and so much more. What you may perceive as rude may not be intended as such. See this as neither good nor bad, but rather, just as it. For example, in some cultures people speak with more heightened emotions. You don’t have to know the differences just remember they exist.

Of course, sometimes a person is being difficult. You may notice signs of agitation, aggression, confusion and more. Paying attention to the person can enable you to notice what’s underlying his behavior. Even when you can’t decipher his emotions, paying attention enables you to be in the moment and see him as a person who may need your composure in response.

4)    Control Your Body Language: Your body position and posture have a huge impact on your brain. For example, we know that smiling can actually begin to improve your mood and that standing tall can make you feel more confident. As you approach the person, put your shoulders back, chest out and walk at a measured pace. As you get closer, you may slowly reshape your posture to slightly mimic the person’s body language. If they’re sitting or standing in a tight position (arms folded, hunched) it can be useful to momentarily step into a similar body position. However, once you do this be aware that it can impact your own thoughts and moods. Once you’re face to face, slowly reshape your posture back to one where you feel stronger, with your back straight, shoulders up and an appropriate look on your face, whether it’s concern, compassion or interest, as befitting the situation and the information you hear.

We’ll always encounter difficult people. These 4 actions may not solve whatever problem you may have encountered, but they can enable you to better manage your emotional reactions and increase your ability to deal with what’s coming next.

Related content:

Are You Causing Second Hand Stress Among Your Employees

Creating a High Trust Culture at Work- 6 Behaviors to Inspire Trust

4 Tactics To Turn Around Employee Negativity

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