7 Ways to Triumph Over Difficult People

Husband has been dealing with a problem at work: someone keeps stealing his creamer out of the refrigerator. Most people would chalk this up to human nature, but Husband has the detail-oriented, everything-in-its-place mind of an engineer, and this little problem has been driving him crazy. (Besides, he likes milk in his coffee.)

“I solved it,” he smugly announced this morning. He labeled the bottle – “Bad – Do Not Drink.” The creamer remains untouched, and the would-be office thief doesn’t realize that the label really means “[You are] Bad – Do Not Drink.”

This got me to thinking — both about unexpected solutions, and difficulties. Situations like grappling with debt (and debt collectors), dealing with irritating coworkers and neighbors (not to mention unpleasant bosses), rude clerks, and all the other setbacks we must cope with all the time.

Sometimes these solve themselves by disappearing naturally, or lessening over time. (Or moving away, in the case of a neighbor’s constantly-barking dog.) Sometimes they’re fixed by talking over the situation with the person involved. There’s even a ‘Bad Boss’ contest to secretly skewer especially obnoxious employers. Occasionally the person in question will recognize their obnoxious behavior and apologize — and for a little while, at least, the world seems like a better place.

More often, though, you’re stuck. The people aren’t interested or able to change, and you must be the one to change the situation, instead.


Sometimes that change is simple – but brilliant. Charles Long, in his book How to Survive Without A Salary, tells about neighborhood kids who persisted in taking a shortcut through his yard — including his garden. After scolding, yelling and putting up with trampled plants, Long and his wife initially planned to put in a high fence, like their similarly beset neighbors had. While they waited for the fencing, Long dumped a truckload of manure on his garden spot.

Early the next morning, he writes, the usual parade of little sneakers vaulted the yard…and landed up to their knees in what they described at full volume. That was it — no kids ever jumped into their yard again, though the neighbors’ fence was breached by summer’s end. (P.S. The Longs never did put in a fence.)

Too bad we can’t dump manure on every situation. But some surprisingly effective steps can disarm these mental bullies, keep your fraying temper in check and preserve peace of mind.

7 Ways to Triumph Over Difficult People

Face up to your part. Are you adding to the tension by coming in late, not meeting deadlines, or not paying your bills on time? Facing these issues head-on, instead of trying to avoid them, will often shrink them down to a size you can handle.

For example, contacting your creditors before they call you shows initiative, and often lets you work out a payment plan. (Good advice on the subject is here.) Or if it’s your turn to make coffee or open the store early, do it without griping. Attitude’s important here.

Sometimes our own actions, inadvertent or not, make things more difficult. It’s unfair to yell at your neighbor’s noisy dog, for example, if they’re barking because you’ve got Madonna blasting over the neighborhood. Clean up your own house before you start pointing fingers.

Respond to rudeness by being overly polite. Not only does it make the irritating person look like a rude bore to others; it emphasizes even more than you are Not That Way. If you snap back with insults or unkind words, you are only descending to their level. (Sometimes I repeat to myself, “Do it back, and they win. You lose.”)

Keep your own integrity. If you’re doing a good job at work and living an honest life at home, one jerk’s opinion won’t matter in the long run. And others will notice.

Something else may be going on here. The clerk may have a sick child at home that she’s worried about. The irritating coworker may live in terror that they’re going to be laid off. A friend who is suddenly mean-spirited or abrupt may be dreading possible health problems, or trying to hide bankruptcy. Attacking you may just be a convenient way to let off steam. (It’s still not right or fair. But it does help to understand the full situation.)

Kindness helps. Showing an unexpected act of kindness, especially to someone who’s just finished being mean to you, will discomfit and stop them in their tracks. (The Bible calls this action “heaping coals of fire” on your enemy’s head.) A compliment or candy bar, quietly offered, may make them feel guilty or (gasp!) rethink their actions. Whatever their response, you’ll feel wonderful. I practiced this by recently by sending flowers to thank fellow board members for their service — people that made my life miserable over the past year with their nitpicking and criticism. For one brief shining moment, they had nothing to say.

Slam the door when you get home. Yes, you had a shitty day. So-and-so was rude — again. Your car broke down, the kids were bickering, and a huge pile of dishes is waiting by the sink. But that day is finished. (Well, maybe not the dishes.) Close your mental door, and congratulate yourself if you made it through without responding in kind. (Or make a resolution to do better.) Don’t let these issues rob you of sleep or precious energy.

Some of my hardest times in life — including dealing with difficult people — could only be endured by taking it one day at a time. You can get through practically everything, if it’s only for a day. Worry about tomorrow when it’s tomorrow.

Chip away, a little at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day — neither were attitudes. You can’t expect things to magically change in 24 hours. Keep working. It will get better.

7 Ways to Triumph Over Difficult People


4 Responses to 7 Ways to Triumph Over Difficult People

  1. Being kind can really help and those other things you mentioned can be effective too when it comes to being with difficult people. Another great post Cindy, thanks!

  2. I liked the story. Once I have read a similar one about a young man whose father started using his shaving razor (borrowing it because he wanted to save money buying a new one for himself). I don’t remember how that went on, but the outcome was that the son wrote a note on the razor indicating what part of his body he shaves with it (and it wasn’t his face). Suddenly his father bought his own razor. I found this very funny and your husband’s story remained me of it.

  3. I remember a car commercial: several people were competing for the last vehicle, but the guy nearest to it licked the car handle — suddenly, no one else wanted it!
    Funny, the commercial was memorable…but I can’t even remember what make or model it was talking about.
    Thanks for writing — and I appreciate the kind words, too.

  4. Counting to 10 before saying anything can also help when dealing with rude people. Instead of snapping back at them, it gives you a moment to collect your thoughts and say something you won’t regret.

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