We’ve all been there. Someone says something preposterous, out of line, or just plain mean, and we just stand there, dumbstruck, perhaps even blinking back tears. We are literally speechless, horrified that someone would behave so terribly.
Worse, this kind of thing could be a pattern with this particular person. You might have to work with them, you might have a romantic relationship with them, or they are influential in your life to the degree that you have to participate in the relationship.
If you frequently find yourself in frustrating circumstances with a difficult person, you’re on edge, wary. You never know what is going to set them off. But they do go off, frequently, and you bear the brunt of it.
Even more maddening is the perfect rejoinder that comes to mind about 2 days later. Exasperatedly, you tell yourself, “I should have said such and such…or I should have done this. Or why couldn’t I have told them off!” Even though you’ve been beating yourself up over the situation for days you can’t very well just go up to someone and signal that’s what you’ve been doing, can you?
Why wouldn’t you just let things go with a difficult person? Well, perhaps you could. You could transfer out of the class, get another job, move to another neighborhood, file for divorce, and any number of things. But more likely there aren’t any practical options that would completely eliminate the situation. Instead, your choice is to minimize or neutralize the harmful effects.
The best you can hope for in situations like these is to get the difficult person to understand you disagree. Once they do, they may modify their behavior or not. But that understanding is the first step in a practical strategy you can use in dealing with them. To get there, you have to confront skillfully and effectively. Many difficult individuals view no response as agreement or acquiescence, so the longer you let it go on, the deeper into a more harmful dynamic you can sink.
When Lori Hoeck and I were writing “The Narcissist: A User’s Guide,” we worked via Google Documents (which is a very cool way to collaborate with someone, by the way!). In our notes and analysis updates, we agreed that good strategies and quick rebuttals to verbal attacks were critical. The methodology we viewed as most effective was to:
- anticipate situations where it would be necessary to confront someone in order to avoid being steamrolled,
- practice responses to these situations – write them out and commit to memory,
- summon them for use when another similar situation occurred.
The section of our shared Google documents that I started calling “Snappy Comebacks” grew. It was eventually incorporated within the Guide as scripted suggestions for assertive responses to the kind of verbal challenges a difficult person might typically make. I am still excited that Lori and I were able to provide specific examples of things you could re-write in your own voice and practice delivering.
Snappy comebacks can sometimes be too snappy – they can provoke an even more inappropriate response from the person you’re trying to neutralize. You don’t want to fight fire with fire; instead, your best interest is practicing to finesse your skills.
If you haven’t read our book (and why haven’t you? It’s free! Click here!), you’ll find there are several PAGES of snappy comebacks designed to set boundaries. They defuse the strategy the other person is attempting. Lori is particularly good at taking passive-aggressive and hurtful statements for exactly what they are, and calling them out. She’s even better at crafting rejoinders that can be made for the record at the time you are under verbal and emotional attack. It was a pleasure to emulate her process to assist with this section, and break it down into a logical sequence.
Now, obviously, every difficult person isn’t a full-blown narcissist like the ones we discuss in the book. That’s beside the point. Strategies difficult people use can be quite similar, and creating distance from them is going to keep you intact. The big point is: if you have to have an extended interaction with a high-maintenance person, wouldn’t an equitable one be more tolerable?
You can decide your requirements are going to take priority. And without getting downright combative, you can respond to their challenges in ways that set and affirm your terms. Once confirmed and on the record, you then can administrate your terms and expectations in future interactions.
Great – administrating your terms in a relationship, eh? Well, with some people, it’s necessary, unfortunately. You’re going to feel a whole lot better when you do yourself a favor and start standing up for YOU.
The old saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” comes to mind. And we don’t want to fall for the difficult person’s game. Having to administrate the relationship may eventually seem like a good reason to minimize it further or even eliminate it in favor of your peace of mind. That’s using process to make a healthy, deliberative decision.
Sooner or later, a difficult person is going to test your boundaries in favor of their agenda. How do you fine tune your recognition and responses? Simple. If the interaction makes you uncomfortable, there’s your starting point. It’s entirely possible to train yourself to respond with an affirmative, assertive statement, using a neutral tone of voice:
“I generally try to work back from deadlines in an effort to plan segments of a long-range task. If we continue to focus on _________, we’re not going to meet our schedule. I’m going to work on the next section. Would you like to work with me, or would you prefer to do this other task that is looming?”
“I can appreciate you’re upset. A calm atmosphere is best for communication. We can come back to this at a better time.”
“I’m available Monday through Friday, and I do check messages on weekends, but perhaps not as frequently as you might prefer. I’ll do my best to get back to you when I can, but family is my first priority on Saturdays and Sundays.”
“I can’t let you call me names. It’s possible to argue our points of view without name-calling. When you’re ready to do that, I’ll respond to you.”
The above examples administrate a relationship by setting a boundary. The communication frames the boundary as if it were the most normal thing in the world (which may be a revelatory circumstance for a difficult person).
Your attitude might even be somewhat breezy, as if their inappropriate behavior isn’t a big surprise. You’ve disassociated from the entire interchange. You will just resume normal communication and expectations when they’re able to continue in human fashion. And all that will just happen to integrate nicely within your terms and expectations.
Let’s recap: A good resolution to a verbal provocation or other difficult behaviors consists of
- first, anticipating that a sticky interchange might occur
- thinking about your needs and requirements – no name-calling, no shouting, keep things positive, refrain from malicious gossip, etc.
- crafting and practicing an assertive response
- disassociating from the heightened emotions
- staying on message despite additional provocation, and then
- administrating your positions by
- referring back to them
- repeating the message
- maintaining expectations within the context of the relationship.
This is a lot of work. It can be really tiresome being the only adult in a relationship. Sometimes you just can’t summon the appropriate response as quickly as you’d like. Other times, difficult people will up the ante and you will have to remain steadfast. Frankly, some people and circumstances just aren’t worth all the energy that seems necessary to keep things equitable. The cool thing is you can always decide whether they are worth expending your emotional resources.
Using this formula is empowering. You are strengthening your resolve and your expectations, and you’re using effective communication skills. You’re going toe to toe with a difficult person and asserting your rights within the relationship. Most of all, you can all but banish “What I should have said…” from your vocabulary.