How to Deal with Difficult People You’re Stuck with

Photo by Scott Sanker

Do you remember the nervous energy you felt in school as your teachers or professors read out the student pairs and groups they had assigned for a chemistry lab, group project, or field trip? At that moment, you may have mentally pleaded, “Oh, call my name with his!” Or perhaps it was, “Please, please, anyone but her!”

Memories of lab partners and group projects also remind me of receiving my child’s class assignments or schedules for a new school year. Like many parents, I’ve dealt with disappointments in assignments with “the mean teacher” or “annoying kid.”

Of course, who doesn’t want to avoid negative social interactions? As adults, we get stuck all the time with people we don’t want to be with or don’t particularly like. We may be the passenger who has to sit next to the chatty one on the plane when we’re dying to read our book, the employee stuck working for a boss who doesn’t realize how much we contribute, the team member assigned to a client who is simply a jerk, or the manager stuck supervising the intern who feels entitled but doesn’t seem to do a thing.

Random assignments in a school setting are supposed to help children learn how to navigate relationships in the “real world.” In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel writes that being stuck with an “awful” teacher can help a child learn coping skills that will later prove helpful on the job or in a marriage.

But, as we approach the holidays and have opportunities to gather with family members once again, some of us are already starting to feel anxious about what “togetherness” can bring.

Two Strategies to Deal With Difficult People You’re ”Stuck” With

I have two strategies from two people I deeply admire — one from an ethics teacher at my children’s former school and the other from my friend. My clients and I find these helpful, so I share them with you.

  • You don’t have to like everyone and you don’t even have to respect everyone, but you do have to respect others’ rights.
  • Don’t try to get everyone to like you (it’s impossible). Instead, aim to have people respect you.

Examples

Employing those two strategies in combination is quite useful in a variety of situations:

  • When a client started a new job, she sensed that her subordinates resented her newly created position. Her first instinct was to try to win them over with her personality. Initially, she tried not to step on people’s toes. But, it wasn’t working. We figured out how to shift gears. She focused on getting to know her team, how they worked, and what they wanted. Then, she restructured what she could so their collective work was more efficient and effective. She also made it clear that she valued solution-oriented talk over complaining.
  • When my child’s friend does something I don’t particularly like, I first acknowledge and respect their friendship. I try to describe something I like about the relationship. But I then mention the specific behavior I disagree with and why. This also sends my child the message that I want her to continue to respect our family’s choices and values.
  • If you’re stuck with someone you don’t like or respect, you’ll of course want to minimize the contact. But, if that’s not possible, approach the situation with curiosity. Assume you are likely to learn something. Maybe you’ll learn some strategies for future encounters or better understand what makes the person tick. The person might just surprise you.

I suspect that you know of other strategies, too. Please contact me to let me know what they are or if anything interesting happens from the two I share.

An older version of this blog post was published in August 2013.

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