Dealing With Difficult People


Stephenie Craig of Journey BravelyBy Stephenie Craig

When did you last interact with a difficult person? Maybe the difficult person has anger problems, behaves with superiority, doesn’t treat others the way they expect to be treated or is generally unkind, mean or rude. Sometimes you might label people as difficult when they have different values, opinions, religious views, political leanings or personalities than you. When are differences just different rather than difficult? When do you invest energy in making space for different ways of moving through the world vs. investing energy in addressing boundary crossings by people who seem to disrespect you or others?

While easy to overlook, sometimes you might be the difficult person. Self-awareness is a skill developed through uncomfortable practice. Noticing when you may tend towards being judgmental, short-fused, selfish or unkind can go a long way in helping you sort interactions with others. Noticing your capability of being difficult and your need for grace when you aren’t your best self can inspire increased humility when addressing difficulty in others.

A common way to deal with difficult people is to become difficult yourself. When someone is rude, you may feel the invitation to match the rudeness. When someone is mean, you may spend time brainstorming ways to inflict vengeance. While these approaches can bring short term satisfaction and a false sense of justice, you end up giving up healthy emotional control and compromising your character. Over time, matching others’ difficult behavior leads to bitterness, resentment, drama, shame and poor character habits. So, how do you address difficult behavior in healthy ways?

7 Ways to Navigate Interactions with Difficult People

1. Evaluate. Determine what is happening in a situation. What is bothering you and why? What is tough or feels like a boundary crossing?
2. Sort past emotion from present. Notice if something about this situation is bringing up feelings from past events/relationships that may be intensifying your emotions in the present. If so, take time to process past feelings separately to give you an accurate perspective in the current situation.
3. Sort differences from difficulty. Ask yourself if the other person is showing poor character vs. has different opinions, values, perspective than you. Make space for difference. Address poor character.
4. Set boundaries. Use kind, direct words and tone to clearly state how the other party is crossing a boundary, how it impacts the relationship, what you will do differently and what you would like for them to do differently. “When you belittle me in front of others, I feel disrespected and emotionally unsafe in our relationship. I won’t participate in conversations where I am belittled and disrespected. When talking to me, please use respect.” If the other party respects your boundary and makes a change, that is an indicator of movement toward health. If the other party continues to cross boundaries or responds poorly to your boundary setting, that is information you need to understand the low value the other party places on the relationship.
5. Speak up for those whose voices are hard to hear. Sometimes difficult people cross boundaries resulting in negativity, abuse, or injustice for those who are vulnerable. Try using your voice and boundary setting for the sake of others.
6. Distance. Once a person has established an ongoing pattern of crossing boundaries and poor character they are unwilling to address, it’s appropriate to create various forms of distance including limiting conversational topics, time, space, emotional energy/investment, and financial involvement. You have power to give your energy and resources to life-giving relationships and to withhold energy from life-draining relationships.
7. Disengage. Try practicing forgiveness toward difficult people for the sake of your own peace and character. Release your right to vengeance and let the relationship go. You have the power to discern when relationships need to end. Disengaging is not defeat. In fact, you win by sustaining good character and recapturing energy to invest in pursuits that bring positive meaning to your life and those around you.

Navigating relationships with difficult people is challenging but inevitable. Practicing boundaries will grow your confidence. As you seek support along your journey, connect with us at for counseling and coaching.