How to Handle Difficult People

Plagued by a passive-aggressive mom or an overly dramatic best friend? Here's how to identify and deal with these hard-to-handle personalities.
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woman pushing man away

The type: Chronically anxious

Most people dread dentist visits and get anxious as their appointment approaches. “But in somebody who is chronically anxious, that motivational system is just always active,” says Markman. “They’re always engaged in avoidance behavior, always worried about what’s going to happen…and that’s not a lot of fun to be around.”

Where you might run into them: Your sister-in-law who acts like her kid is going to die if she takes her eyes off him for a second (or has even one sip of non-organic milk), and makes you feel bad for not being the same way

How to deal: “I suggest showing empathy and not trying to belittle their anxiety, even if it seems irrational,” says Biran. “It is very real for them. I would ask the person how I could help and back off if she states that she wants to be left alone.”

What the anxious person seeks is safety, according to Markman. He doesn’t recommend trying to fix people (“That’s a full-time job!”), but if it’s in your power to reduce someone’s anxiety try to help. In other words, if your friend goes bonkers about getting to the airport three hours early, it’s not going to kill you to humor her.

The type: Dramatic

“These are people who like drama in their lives, who like to ride life’s ups and downs,” Markman says. “These are people who not only experience drama, they create it.”

We’re talking about your friend who calls in a distraught state because her Saturday night plans fell through, and clearly that’s a sign that no one likes her and she’ll be alone forever. “In the moment, for these people who are neurotic, it really feels like the world is caving in,” Markman says. And then it turns out to be: “Oh, I forgot to get milk!”

Where you might run into them: On the phone late at night with your BFF who drives you nuts with her latest relationship drama or near-firing.

How to deal: “You need to decide whether you can interact with a person with a tendency for dramatization,” says Biran. “If you do, accept their style with humor. If you cannot stand the dramatization, try not to associate with them, or at least withdraw when they are in a ‘dramatizing’ state of mind so as not to reinforce it.”

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Markman points out that sometimes you stay friends with this person because they’re a distraction or they make you feel better about your own life. But if you’ve had enough of the drama, say something. “With someone on these extremes, have one frank discussion with them,” says Markman. Point out that you can’t ride along on the rollercoaster anymore. Give them a chance to re-think their relationship with you. Then, you have to decide how much drama you’re willing to deal with. These types have a way of wearing people out because they’re so exhausting. One exit line, suggests Markman, is “I’m sorry, you seem to have a lot going on, but I can’t help you.”

The type: Judgmental

“With someone who is judgmental, you can simply tell by their reaction that they disagree with a decision you just made,” says Markman. They may go the direct route and tell you that or just say “Hmmm” when you tell them about a decision you made. “We notice it most when that person not only judges, but is negative,” he says.

Where you might run into them: Your three college friends who tear down anyone outside their circle—and maybe you’re starting to wonder why you’ve stayed friends with the meanies for so long.

How to deal: The best coping strategy may be to put distance between yourself and your self-proclaimed judge. With judgmental people, “what you’re getting there is a combination of two personality traits—disagreeableness and a lack of openness to experience,” says Markman. In other words, if it’s not done my way, it’s got to be wrong. And you’re not going to change that person. If you can’t take a step back, then curtail sharing your doings and decisions to avoid judgment—or try to grow a much thicker skin.

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