Most, if not all of us have to deal with difficult people in our lives, whether it be a family member, friend, co-worker, or peer. Interacting with difficult people can be exhausting, and it is easy to let them take control and ruin your day!

In order to create new healthy communication habits, you need to make the first step! In this post you will find a few steps that are useful when communicating with difficult people. 

1. Take a break

(Do you notice how this tip is on each of my communication posts?)

Taking a break is so important because it ensures that we do not say something that we will regret, or something that we don’t mean. Instead of reacting in the heat of the moment, try taking a couple deep breaths before you say anything. Or better yet, if it is a very heated conversation, walk away for a couple minutes to gather your thoughts and then return to the conversation when you are feeling more calm.

When you approach a conversation with a difficult person in a calm manner, you’ll be logical and rationale in your discussion with them.

2. Listen to the difficult person

Often times, yelling matches and fights between people begin when they are simply not listening to each other. Each person thinks they need to talk louder in order to be understood. Even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, allow the person to finish their thought! Once they have finished talking, let them know you listened by rephrasing what they said back to them!

It is amazing what happens when you stop interrupting and start listening. You don’t need to agree with what they are saying, but they will be much more likely to listen to you when you listen to them as well!

Showing the person the kind of behaviour you want to see by behaving the same way yourself is known as modelling! This is a VERY effective tool in behaviour change that has significant research support! The more you act how you want the difficult person to act, the more likely it is that their behaviour will also change! So if you want them to listen, act calmly, and be respectful, make sure you act that way towards them!

3. Separate the person from the problem

Yes, this person may be extremely frustrating and difficult to deal with. Does this make them a horrible person? No.

It is important to consider what other factors might be going on for this person. What is their home life like? Is it possible they are taking out a difficult home life on you? What other stresses is this person dealing with? What kind of support does this person have?

Think of the ‘difficult person’ in your life as a person who may be struggling. This does not make their behaviour correct, but can help you gain perspective. If they are lashing out at you, maybe they are actually just needing an outlet or someone to talk to.

4. Evaluate your role in the relationship

It is easy to put all of the blame and frustration onto the person you are having conflict with. However, it is very important to understand what role your behaviour is having on your relationship with this person. What are you doing that might be making this relationship more challenging?

Are you listening to this person and talking to them respectfully? Are you possibly enabling them? Have you spoken to them about their difficult behaviour, or are you ignoring it and hoping the behaviour will go away? Do you have your own hurts that you might be transferring onto this person?

Take time to reflect on these questions and think about the role you play in the difficult relationship.

5. Be proactive instead of reactive

When dealing with difficult people, it can be easy to constantly focus on the negatives and frustrations associated with this person. However, this technique does not do any good for either parties. Instead of focussing on how frustrating your relationship is with this person, look for a solution to your problem.

Once you have come up with a solution to the problem, bring this solution to the difficult person!

When you look for solutions instead of focussing on how upset you are, you are making steps to change the problem! If you don’t do anything differently, nothing will change!

6. Set firm but kind boundaries

If you have tried all of the other steps listed above and you are still struggling with this difficult relationship, it may be time to set some boundaries. 

Tell the person how you feel (using I feel statements), and how you will react moving forward. 

For example: “I feel as though I am not able to focus on my work when you are texting and calling me throughout the day. In the future I am going to answer personal calls during the day from 1-2pm only, and I may only have a limited time to talk. Thank you for understanding this. 

“I have a hard time understanding what you would like from me when you are yelling. In the future, I will wait until you are able to talk to me calmly before I respond to you.”

Expect that the difficult person may not happily respond to your boundary. However, when you consistently maintain these boundaries over time, the difficult person in your life will need to change their behaviour in order to communicate with you!

And if these examples sound difficult to say, believe me they are! Boundaries can be incredibly difficult to set (I never said these tips were going to be easy today!). However difficult it may be, setting boundaries is so important in creating safe and healthy relationships, and also to protect your mental health! It is difficult at first, but once you see the positive change this can make to your relationships, you will see the value!

I am tempted to do an entire series on boundary setting because I think it is such an important topic! Comment below if you would be interested in learning more about boundaries 🙂

Take home message

Today we listed 6 very important ways to communicate with the difficult people in your life! Try these steps out the next time you are faced with a frustrating person or situation that makes you feel stuck!

  1. Take a Break.
  2. Listen.
  3. Separate the Person From the Problem.
  4. Evaluate Your Role In The Relationship.
  5. Be Proactive NOT Reactive – Identify a Solution.
  6. Set Firm But Kind Boundaries.

As a disclaimer, I want to point out that these are just general tips, and they may not be helpful for every relationship. Power dynamics and the type of relationship you are in, can make using these tips difficult. Further, if you are in an abusive relationship (physical abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and/or financial abuse), these tips are not for you! If you are in an abusive relationship make sure that you talk to someone who you trust and is safe about it, and get out of that relationship! Here are a few links to help lines if you are in need of a safe person to talk to: Here 24/7, Crisis Clinic, Partners for Mental Health.


Jess VanderWier

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 3

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