THE HEART OF LIVING: Dealing With Difficult People


Dear Emory,

I have an adult member of my family who is extremely difficult to deal with.  This person loves to pick arguments and he is good at it.  We have to see him several times a year.  While I always start with good intentions, inevitably there are harsh criticisms and ugly words by the end of the day.  I try really hard to stay out of it, but I always seem to get pulled into arguments, and I hate the way it makes me feel afterwards.  I can’t avoid this person, but I haven’t figured out a better way to deal with him either.  Do you have any suggestions?

Dealing with Difficult People on Dogwood Avenue


Dear Dealing,

I’m sure many people reading your letter know someone just like the person you are describing—though they may be thinking of a difficult neighbor, a difficult co-worker, or even one of their own difficult family members.

Just because someone acts the way you are describing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be this way.  Think of difficult people as people with limitations—these are people who often have very limited abilities to calm themselves and they may have very limited abilities to deal well with other people in their life.

Some of the problems we encounter when we deal with difficult people are the result of how we react to them.  Defensiveness, arguing back, or even attacking in retaliation may only encourage the difficult person to feel justified in their behavior and to ratchet up their attack.   I realize that we are all human, and going on defense is typical when we are feeling attacked, but defensiveness often makes the situation worse.

Instead of defending yourself, I suggest defusing the situation.  You can do this with communication skills that maintain your own self-respect and dignity, while also showing respect for the difficult person.   As you might imagine, using a calm, dignified tone of voice and body language will be just as important as the words you use.

  • Acknowledgement—which is NOT the same thing as agreement, but is always respectful.

These hamburgers are terrible, you didn’t cook them right!”

 “Oh, you don’t like the way the hamburgers taste.”

  • Agree with whatever small part you can agree with.

“Only stupid people would vote for that guy.” 

“You may be right.”

  • Agree to disagree, respectfully.

“We don’t have a problem with alcohol in our family!” 

“You don’t think we have a problem with alcoholism in our family, but I see it differently.”

  • Allow the difficult person to have their feelings, while keeping your feelings out of it.

“I just hate the way you always want to do things your way.” 

(This is hurtful and completely untrue, but you set that aside)

“I appreciate your honesty in telling me this.  Are you saying you want to have more of a say about how we do things?”

  • Let them have the last word.

“Okay, I hear what you are saying, you really don’t like that football team.”

“Yeah, they suck.  And if you like them, you’re an idiot!”


 What I hope you notice in these examples, Dealing, is that defusing difficult situations with difficult people is not the same thing as giving up or giving in.  Difficult people often see social relationships as a battle for control or superiority.  They may pick arguments because winning and losing may be the only reliable way they know how to interact with other people.

You, however, can avoid getting pulled into battles by having another goal in mind: maintaining respect equally for yourself and the “difficult person.”  Equal respect is the polar opposite of winning/losing.  When you focus on respectfully defusing the situation, conversations do not become power struggles.  Difficult people may never become easy—but, with effort, practice, and time, you can learn how to deal with them more easily and successfully.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website:

2 Comments on "THE HEART OF LIVING: Dealing With Difficult People"

  1. How long would it take someone to suppress their flight or fight response and turn into a diffuser?

    • Hi Jess,
      Good question. In my experience, the “fight or flight” reaction is always there for me when I’m nervous, such as when I’m dealing with a really difficult person. My palms sweat, my stomach knots, etc. But even if my voice is shaky, I can still respond in ways that express respect and self-respect. This almost always makes the situation better, or at least keeps it from getting worse. What I learn from these experiences over time helps me calm my “fight or flight” response and feel more confident and even a bit more relaxed. I hope this is a useful response to your question.

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