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Dealing with Difficult People: 17 Tips to Keep You Sane

Start a Dialogue...

Before you say anything, you have to do a little homework. How exactly do you want the behavior to change? In the long term, what are you expecting from this relationship? Until you can answer those questions, you’re not ready to talk to anyone.

If you fear a bad reaction, plan ahead: “Figure out in advance how you’re going to respond,” advises Fee. “Will you walk away? Breathe deeply until he calms down?” This exercise can also help you focus on what might trigger a heated response.

Make sure no one will interrupt the conversation and pick a time when you’re not hungry or tired, so you can give it your full attention.

...And Follow These Talking Tips

  • Start the conversation with sincere flattery — it’s especially effective if you’re afraid you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings. With loved ones, “explain that the reason you’re having this talk is that you care so much and want to improve the relationship,” suggests Fee.
  • Call out the behavior, not the person. “You need to learn how to separate the individual from the act,” Lichtenberg explains. “Confronting someone is not so different from disciplining a kid. You don’t say to your child, ‘You’re bad!’ You say, ‘It’s bad that you drew on the wall.’”
  • Cite specific examples of what’s bothering you. Avoid vague comments like, “You’re such a snob.” Instead say, “Last week, you made three disparaging comments about the clothes I was wearing.”
  • Spell out what you want to change. The next time your Freud-wannabe friend tries to be your personal shrink, you can say, “I appreciate your advice, and I know you want to be helpful. But most of the time, I really just want an ear. I’m telling you this because I want to be able to share things with you.”
  • Request feedback as soon as possible. If you don’t, it can turn into a lecture. Right away ask, “What do you think about what I’ve said?” Or, “Have you been feeling the same way?”
  • Pay attention to more than your words. “Only 7 percent of communication is what you’re actually saying — the rest is your tone of voice, expression, and body language,” says Kimberly Alyn, author of How to Deal with Annoying People.

Take a Less Direct Approach

Sitting down for a heart-to-heart won’t work with everyone. At times it’s better to resolve an issue in a more roundabout way, even with loved ones. For example, humor can be especially effective. If your sister has a habit of psychoanalyzing you every time you chat, Alyn suggests saying, “Wow, I feel like I should be lying on a couch for this. How much do I owe you?” Here, more ways to fix those frustrating interactions:

  • Put the difficult person to good use. When Bette Walter, an entrepreneur in Blue Bell, PA, is considering a new business move, she turns to a friend who always shoots down her plans: “I ask her what she thinks before she can tell me what a dumb idea it is. She’s very logical, so it’s helpful.” For know-it-alls, steer the conversation toward a topic you’re interested in, so you can at least learn something until you can make your getaway.
  • Remember this rule: If you can predict it, you can plan for it. “If you see an incessantly forlorn coworker walking your way, get up and leave your desk,” says Kirschner. “Or pick up the phone and pretend you’re speaking to someone. If you stop listening to her, she’ll eventually stop coming over.”
  • Get the last word. If someone is giving you unsolicited advice, saying “Thanks” will usually put an end to her rant. When you’re around a braggart, just smile, advises Crowe. Then reply, “Wow, that’s really great. I’m so happy for you.”
  • Plan an exit strategy. When you can’t get a chatty person off the phone, pretend that you’ve been interrupted by someone else, so you can quickly say, “Sorry, gotta go.”

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