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January 24, 2023

Getting Along with Difficult People

Georgean Rustemeyer, MSW, LCSW

Life would be so much easier if everyone just got along, but at some point, each of us encounters individuals who behave in a manner that evokes anger, fear, humiliation, or a sense of powerlessness. This is especially challenging when the person is a colleague, supervisor, neighbor, client, or family member with whom we have to interact on a regular basis. Of course, behaviors that one person may find difficult may not be such a big deal for another. Whereas one person may have a strong negative reaction to an individual who behaves in a pushy, bossy, critical, or intimidating manner, another may get stirred up talking to someone who expresses strong religious or political beliefs with which they disagree. We may be able to sometimes avoid or decrease interactions with these individuals, but it helps to increase our ability to effectively navigate them.

Goal Setting

Our goals and objectives for challenging encounters depends on the nature of the relationship and what we want to accomplish. For a one-time interaction with an individual who is known to become volatile, our objective may simply be to communicate something important and obtain compliance without making the situation worse. With a family member who expresses very different viewpoints in a manner that makes us upset, our goal may be to remain calm, grounded, and curious, and to express our beliefs without expecting endorsement. We do not have to like the other person, we do not have to agree, and we do not have to change their mind or elicit an apology. We should try to resist the urge to judge or put the person in a single category according to something like politics or religion, because that can make things worse. Sometimes our goal is to acknowledge to the difficult person that our own view may be but one legitimate viewpoint among many. At other times, our objective may simply be to remain quiet, redirect, or distract rather than confront, or to restrict interactions with the person.

Planning Ahead

If we anticipate that a person will act in a provocative manner, it is important to choose the right time and place for conversations, and troubleshoot potential challenges in advance. Ensuring physical and emotional safety, maintaining the person’s privacy, and treating him/her with maturity, dignity, and respect are very important. Encounters can be planned to ensure built-in opportunities to take a break if needed. It may be important to ask a co-worker, supervisor, friend, or family member to be present during an interaction as an observer or participant, to increase our comfort level and assist if needed. It may be necessary to plan interactions in public areas, or keep our back to the door in case we need to exit quickly. During the conversation, it is OK to end a meeting quickly in a polite and respectful manner. We should avoid trying to reason with someone who appears to be under the influence of a mood-altering substance. Emotional abuse, including deliberate humiliation, threats, or derogatory name-calling, should not be tolerated. If at any time we feel unsafe, we should consider involving law enforcement, Human Resources, or other authority figure who can ensure safety.


It may be helpful to increase self-awareness of why a certain person evokes strong emotions, and what we may be inadvertently communicating to that person in our response. Sometimes an individual reminds us of a previous painful relationship when we felt the same fear, anger, shame, or sense of powerlessness. In situations where a person is difficult because he/she has very different viewpoints, it may help to remember that it is natural to have a strong preference for our own values and belief system because they help define our identity and what is important to us. Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge the different ideas of others in part because our strong emotions may interfere with logical or rational thinking, in the same way they may block reasoning for the other person. Talking about contentious issues in our highly polarized social environment is incredibly hard and complicated. Seeking support from a trusted confidant to process thoughts, feelings, and reactions, can help in gaining perspective.

Strengths-based interventions that increase our self-confidence may also lead to improved relationships. For example, making a list of our interpersonal strengths, coping abilities and past successes in interacting with difficult people, may help empower us. We can recall an experience in which we handled a challenging interaction in a way that made us feel courageous and self-confident, and then soak in and savor those pleasurable feelings immediately before we have to talk with an angry customer or co-worker.

If an interaction leads to us feeling rejected, criticized, or disrespected, these feelings may be reflected in our tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. We may avoid eye contact, scowl, or display irritation on our face, perhaps leading the other person to think we do not like him/her. We can increase awareness of how we come across to others and learn to modify our responses so they do not contribute to worsening of an individual’s provocative behavior.

Interpersonal Skills

Active listening, without being so overly focused on our rebuttal that we miss the message, gives people a sense of being seen, heard, and understood, which can be calming. As we listen, we can re-state the individual’s main point and validate his/her viewpoint or feelings. Validation simply means that we recognize and acknowledge where the person is coming from, even though we may not agree. Our instinct may be to try to calm the other person down by telling them to lower their voice, putting our arm on theirs, or some other similar gesture that may be appropriate in other contexts. But if someone is already upset, it may be better to avoid directives or physical touch, as it might be misinterpreted. Also, telling someone who is upset to be quiet and calm down may make the person angrier. Allowing some degree of ventilation as long as the person does not become emotionally abusive, may be helpful.

There are many considerations to help make decisions around when to avoid conversation, change the subject, or stand up for what needs to be said. It is helpful to build coping skills for tolerating distress and managing strong emotions so they do not cloud our thinking or interfere with our response. To delay responding immediately to an angry person, we can focus on taking slow, deep breaths, or using a mindfulness strategy of shifting our attention away from negative thoughts to the here and now.

Assertiveness skills such as asking for what we want, setting boundaries, and saying no when appropriate, help us take care of ourselves while effectively communicating our needs. Utilizing these skills during interactions with someone who exhibits bullying or intimidating behavior can be very challenging and requires practice. It is OK to limit conversation duration, frequency, and content, or to say, “That’s an interesting idea and I’d like to hear more but I have to leave now.” In some circumstances, it is preferable to use messaging or email communication, rather than face-to-face, although one has to be careful with wording, to prevent misinterpretation. At any time, after weighing out the pros and cons, it is OK to end the relationship.

Understanding Difficult Behavior

Using negative labels such as “arrogant” or “idiot” to describe a difficult person can narrow our perspective and contribute to emotional distress. It is more helpful to focus on the behavior and resist the urge to cast judgment with negative labels. There are great variations in the reasons why people behave in a provocative manner. The individual may have a mental health or substance abuse problem, or be reacting to life stressors such as loss of a job, divorce, death, financial setback, or other events. They may have a history of painful life experiences such as being bullied, victimized, rejected, or abandoned, and have developed a sense of having been wronged and a desire to blame others for those wrongs. 

Our understanding and empathy for how a person reacts to life experiences does not mean we are making excuses for bad behavior. We may still need to prioritize holding the person accountable for his/her behavior. But understanding can increase our empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, if those are our objectives. Forgiveness does not have to interfere with the pursuit of justice if harm has been done. However, it may help us to stop obsessing about past wrongs so we feel less angry or bitter about the other person.

Sometimes it is helpful to identify goals or interests that we share with the person, such as a sports team, a hobby, or type of music, which are all great neutral topics to discuss. Finding something we can agree on is a better place to start than jumping right into a disagreement or difficult topic. Acknowledgement of mutual goals can help build rapport and resolve conflicts, even if each of the parties have different ideas of how to achieve those goals. For example, an angry and volatile parent may share the same goal as a teacher: for the child to do well in school. Maintaining this focus during interactions may dilute the intensity of a challenging interaction.


Getting along with a difficult person often requires extraordinary effort and emotional energy, but can be managed successfully. Seeking therapy or consultation from a professional counselor can help you identify thoughts and feelings, gain perspective, build coping skills, and implement a plan for managing a relationship with a difficult person. If you are interested in getting connected with a compassionate and experienced therapist, please contact West County Psychological Associates at (314) 275-8599.

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Georgean Rustemeyer, MSW, LCSW

Georgean Rustemeyer, MSW, LCSW worked for almost 20 years as a therapist in schools, specializing in the provision of comprehensive school mental health services. She is proficient in training and consultation for school teams, as well as individual, family and group counseling for students. In addition to schools, Georgean has a wealth of experience as a therapist in community mental health, family service and Employee Assistance Program settings. She enjoys working with adolescents and adults who are struggling with life transitions, anxiety/depression, workplace stress, grief, parenting or relationship difficulties.