How to deal with bossy family and acquaintances in 2 easy steps

As we begin to gather again, many of us will have to deal with bossy family and acquaintances. Instead of feeling festive, we can sometimes feel dread.

deal with bossy family and acquaintances

Interactions with bossy people can happen all the time. Mothers, for example, seem to be easy targets for those who love to give unsolicited advice.

We all have the potential to be bossy. I can certainly be so more often than I’d like to admit. I’m sure my husband, younger brother, daughters, and friends would happily give you an earful about just how bossy I can be!

Most of us simply want to be helpful, especially when discussing specific topics or in certain situations where we might have some expertise. When you feel like you’ve worked hard to learn something and know you won’t be using that acquired knowledge again anytime soon, you’re dying to make it useful by imparting it to someone else.

Unfortunately, however, some people in our lives are persistently bossy and, for whatever reason, their words have a lasting impact. Their words ring in your head and haunt you.

I secretly call these individuals “Bossypants.” (By the way, the book by the same name by Tina Fey is absolutely hilarious; I highly recommend it even though it is irrelevant to this article.)

Working with my clients has taught me two steps that can help when we have to deal with bossy family and acquaintances who fall in this persistent Bossypants category.

Step 1: Identify the source

When people are persistently bossy, it usually has less to do with you and more to do with them. It could be that Bossypants feel …

  • Small, and therefore they want to cut others down to their size,
  • Invisible, and therefore they want to be acknowledged or recognized, or
  • Ashamed or insecure about an aspect of their own lives, and therefore they want to claim something is wrong in others’ lives

Bossypants may not be aware of what they are feeling deep down. They may believe their intentions are good and that they are being helpful. But, the bossiness doesn’t feel good to us.

Step 2: Separate and sort

Consider the “advice” you are given, keeping what’s helpful and forgetting the rest.

Sometimes Bossypants do provide bits of information that are helpful or at least worth considering. So as best you can examine what might be useful to you.

In most cases, if the unsolicited advice bothers you and isn’t easy to brush away, it’s because it highlighted something you were already aware of or considered but maybe haven’t resolved yet. So, it might just be helpful to add it to your someday-maybe-later list. (I wrote more about this for WIRED.)

But for the aspects that are hurtful, maddening, or annoying, recognize them as such and then do what you can to let them go. It’s very difficult (perhaps nearly impossible) to change Bossypants’ ways, but we can change our reactions to them.

The saying from Buddha is helpful here: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Don’t give Bossypants the power to burn you. Don’t let them be the boss of you!

Your turn

How do you deal with bossy family and acquaintances? Any advice to share?

An older version of this article was published in November 2017 and in 2011.