by Kathy Gottberg
The current box-office movie The Avengers features a scene where the evil bad guy Loki confronts the massive and up-until-then unpredictable Green Hulk. During the entire first half of the movie Loki repeatedly hurts, maims and condemns both the people of Earth and the avenging superheroes at every twist of the plot. At one point Loki even stabs his own brother Thor in the gut when offered a chance at peace. Finally, during an intense confrontation where Loki insults the Hulk and demands subjugation, the Hulk merely looks at Loki calmly before reaching out and gabbing his ankles. Then with a firm grasp, The Hulk beats Loki senselessly against the ground over and over again like a rag doll. The action feels so justified and well deserved that just about every single person in the theater laughed and applauded in agreement. If only every encounter with a difficult person were as clear-cut and simple to resolve.
First, let me be clear that I’m no expert at dealing with difficult people. In fact, my life as a writer insulates me from what many people encounter on a regular basis in the workplace and dealing with the public. But this week I came face to face with two different individuals who could be viewed as rather nasty and unpleasant. That’s when I realized two things: #1 how out of practice I am when confronted with this situation; #2 how creating a happy and SMART life requires a response that rises above the need for a Hulk like response, and instead transforms the experience into greater understanding and awareness for ourselves and others.
How do we do that? First I think it is important to realize that for most of us an encounter with a difficult person is triggered when our security or sense of peace or control is threatened. Much as we may not want to admit it (I sure don’t!) most encounters with difficult people happen when our identity or emotions have been triggered to feel:
#1 Others have treated us unfairly.
#2 We are in danger of losing something like our honor, our money, our job, our spouse or any other thing we think is vunerable to loss.
#3 The world or other people are operating in a way that doesn’t fit our belief of “how things should be.”
#4 Bad emotional habits
#5 We think everything is about us or we take things too personally.
I’m sure that every now and then some of these emotions are justified and require immediate response. In fact, if you are about to lose something like your spouse or your job, action is understandable. Or if something happens in your world that completely blows your mind—you may want to question what’s really going on. But even then, instead of immediately jumping on defense, an awareness of why we are feeling vulnerable is critical. Only then we can adequately gauge what our next and best action step should be.
On the other hand, at least some of the time our defensive and emotional responses are unconscious and not based upon the truth at all. Moreover, if we unconsciously react whenever provoked without identifying the cause, we might create a much bigger problem for ourselves than the situation requires. Even worse, it will be very difficult to learn anything from the experience and move beyond the behavior in the future.
So what are some practices that would help us all better deal with difficult people when necessary? Here are ten suggestions I believe can be useful:
#1 Pause. Remember, if you want to know what is really going on, then you will need to delay any automatic response you might feel. Not only do our bodies automatically respond when we sense danger (real or not) the blood in our brains drain and shift to empower our muscles. So while you might be able to fight or run away, there is a good chance your thinking isn’t as sharp as you need to make a good decision. Pausing helps to keep it all manageable.
#2 Figure out what you want. Whenever we feel threatened (again whether real or not) we often forget what is most important to us in the moment. If we pause and then take time to remember what it is that we hold most dear, then we can resist any automatic knee-jerk response that we might later regret. If I have a goal to be “the peace I wish to see in the world,” then even when justified I might choose to ignore certain confrontations. If I am hoping to be a more confident, assertive woman when faced with conflict, I might choose to respond, but only on my terms. If my children need protection, I might ignore any slight and just get the heck out of the situation. See the difference? In every single situation we need to determine whether any further action is in our best interest—or whether to walk away. Once we know what is best, only then can we make the best response.
#3 Remember, you are the common denominator in every encounter. Although there are some instances where we can change the experience—ultimately the only thing we have certain control over is ourselves. Face it, every difficult encounter takes two elements—and one of them is you or I. Even if we didn’t cause it—much of the time we can be the one to end it. Again, what do we really want, and why?
#4 Let go of life needing to be fair. If I believe life must unfold according to my interpretation of it (even if I get that interpretation from a religion or philosophy) chances are I will be confronted by it regularly. Regardless of how righteous I feel about my interpretation—that interpretation is really only my subjective worldview. While living my life within my own integrity is important for me—expecting anyone else or Life itself to fit into that interpretation is a recipe for unhappiness.
#5 Change the story. As mentioned in other articles, each of us interprets the world in a subjective way. We also are “sense-making” beings who will take just about any experience and create a story out of it that helps us feel safe and as secure as possible. If the story you’ve been using (and yes, we all have one!) hasn’t been creating a happy life or experience, then change it! You CAN do this!
#6 Love yourself. Those of us who constantly try to please other people on a regular basis spend far too much time worrying about what others think. On some level (probably unconsciously) we are under the impression that we can get everyone to love and appreciate us—if we just do the right thing. So when others are difficult we take it especially hard and struggle with what went wrong. Instead, if we take the time to nurture a relationship with ourselves—learn to love and appreciate who we are regardless of what others think—then chances are good we won’t care if every difficult person loves or even likes us. We can walk away and know that everything is okay even when people say or do nasty things. That’s about them—and has nothing to do with us.
# 7 Get physical. No I don’t mean physically assaulting the person who was mean. Instead, there is plenty of scientific proof that states that people who exercise regularly deal with stress in a much more healthy and productive way. If you are tense, irritable and haven’t slept well, chances are that your responses with difficult people will come across much more aggressively than you prefer. Take care of your health, exercise, get enough sleep and eat healthy foods on a regular basis, and many difficult encounters will roll right off of your shoulders.
#8 Meditate. Yep—here it is again. There is now more than enough evidence that proves that if you take the time to mediate on a regular basis (even ten minutes a day) you will be able to handle stress in a much better way. In addition, not only will you be able to “pause” before you respond, you will also be able to stop and breathe, figure out what you want, let go of wanting life to be fair, and even determine if you are part of the problem. Meditation actually gives us more time to live and respond in a way that serves us all.
#9 Move on. Ever had your mind repeat over and over what you should have done or should have said? Moving on is just as important as turning the difficult encounter around from the get-go. Let it go. Use meditation or what ever other tool necessary and stop the madness. If we can’t forgive or forget, it is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. We don’t forgive others to let them off the hook—we forgive others to give ourselves peace.
#10 Use the Serenity Prayer. I understand that sometimes it is important for us to stand up for what is important. But far too often we jump in when thing are better left alone. That’s why the serenity prayer is so great! It says, “God grant me the serenity ?to accept the things I cannot change; ?courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Dealing with difficult people is seldom easy. As I mentioned in the beginning, the more you feel you have to lose, the more you will want to go Hulk-like and jump to your own defense. But even if justified, responding without thought or discipline relinquishes any power we may have to change the situation and erases the opportunity to learn something for the future. The truly empowered person is the one stays response-able.
Meanwhile, I personally strive to be the kind of person who, when confronted by nasty or mean people, emulates the Buddha. It is said that when a rude person spewed negativity at the Buddha during one of his lectures, he calmly asked the man,
“If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?
“To the one who offered it,” said the man.
“Then,” said the Buddha, “I decline to accept your abuse and request you to keep it for yourself.”
“Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.”? ~Samuel Johnson
“Unconditional response-ability is self-empowering. It lets you focus on those aspects of the situation that you can influence. When you play cards, you have no control over the hand you are dealt. If you spend all your time complaining and making excuses for your cards, you will feel disempowered and will most likely lose the game. But if you see yourself as having a choice in how to play those cards, your feelings will change. You will have a sense of possibility. Even if you don’t win, you can always do your best with the cards you’ve got.” ~Fred Kofman
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