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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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.

-Maria Ricapito,

Boy sticking tongue out

Extremely difficult people are everywhere—they lurk at the grocery store or behind the wheel of a taxi or in the next cube. They sit around the family dinner table or sip Mango-tinis at your monthly girls’ night out.

Chances are, one (if not all) of these six difficult personality types have gotten on your nerves. The good news? We’ve got some strategies on how to identify and deal with them.

The type: Rude

“One of the five classic dimensions of personality is agreeableness,” says Art Markman, Ph. D., Psychology Advisor and author of Smart Thinking. “Rude people are way on the disagreeable end of spectrum.” In addition, a rude person is probably something of an extrovert. “In order to be rude, you have to be willing to be disagreeable and disagreeable publicly,” Markman adds. He points out that rude people aren’t always rude; it depends on the situation—they may be charming to their mothers, for instance.

Where you might run into them: At the local supermarket tallying up your groceries or at every family get-together in the form of your obnoxious big brother

How to deal: It depends on how likely you are to bump into them again, according to Markman. “If it’s the cashier who’s exhausted after a long day and talks back to you, it’s probably not worth getting excited about,” he says. You can tell some drive-by rude person what you think of them, but as Markman points out, life is short.

However, if it’s a relative (whom you, realistically, can’t avoid), they’re not going to change without some help. Markman suggests sitting down with the relative and telling them how what they said or did made you feel. “This puts the burden on them,” he says. “Is it their intention to make you feel this way?”

Another strategy is to stop the insulting person as soon as you sense that she’s going there, suggests Mia Weinberger Biran, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Oxford, Ohio. “This is difficult,” she says, “because most of us are inclined to listen to the other person’s reactions and opinions.” But it’s better to cut her off before she says something you can’t forget. If all else fails, “diffuse it by making a joke about their rudeness,” she says.

Read Sitting Too Long Could Kill You

The type: Aggressive

“This is the person who’s willing to be in your face,” notes Markman. “Aggressive people are self-promoting folks who have crossed the line. If they stay on this side of the line of being annoying, we label them as a ‘go-getter.’ At the point where they annoy us, they become aggressive.” Or they might be in some sort of testosterone-fueled rage that may have little to do with you.

Where you might run into them: In the car that just rear-ended you, in the next cubicle or in your special smarty-pants honors seminar

How to deal: First off, Markman points out that if you feel like you are in physical danger from an aggressive person, you need to remove yourself right away. If the angry person is just losing it, like the other party in a fender-bender, you need to back off and let them cool down. “There’s no reasoning in the moment,” says Markman. But if it’s someone at the office or in school who’s just irking you by going for it, maybe it’s time to take stock of your expectations and goals.

“What you need to do is ask yourself what exactly is annoying or frustrating to you?” Markman suggests. “Is it what they are doing or is it something you aren’t doing?” For instance, maybe you’re frustrated that you aren’t sticking up for yourself. One plus is that aggressive people are direct—as Markman puts it: “What you see is what you get.”

The type: Passive Aggressive

“This is someone who’s trying to get what they want without telling you that’s what they’re trying to do,” says Markman. “They’re using all of these other indirect ways. The passive aggressive person is doing this pathologically.”

For instance, a passive-aggressive person might “forget” to do things for you as a way of punishing you instead of just coming out with why he or she is upset. Often they will seem sullen or complain about being underappreciated.

For whatever reason, these people aren’t comfortable with direct confrontation. According to Markman, they create situations in which you’ll feel bad in order to affect your behavior, which is incredibly frustrating—not to mention manipulative. And they’ll get back at you by talking behind your back or not doing what you ask.

Where you might run into them: At home—we’re talking to you, Mom (does this sound familiar: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here in the dark”?), or at work (with a co-worker who “forgets” the report you needed for a presentation after you get the promotion she wanted)

How to deal: Sometimes you may not be sure that you’re reading things right, notes Biran. In other words, is this person truly passive-aggressive? “Listen to your gut feelings,” she says. “If you find yourself getting angry even though the person is very nice and apologetic, that is an indication that there may be aggression underneath the surface.”

Markman suggests speaking directly to the person. They may have low self-esteem or be afraid to say what’s on their mind. “Sometimes people are a little uncomfortable, and if you give them an opening they engage you,” he says. But if they’re too enmeshed in their patterns, it may be too hard to change. “At some point you reach a point of diminishing returns in that relationship,” says Markman. “If they’re family, you try to deal with them as little as possible. If they’re not family, you can deal with them even less.”

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