Mark Sherman – Difficult People

Mark-Sherman SQUAREMost of us have a bunch of words for those who psychologists refer to as “difficult people,” but no matter what you call them, such individuals are, by definition, not easy to deal with. Two questions come to mind immediately:

1. What is the best way to deal with difficult people? and

2. What do you do if you are one?

The most obvious answer to #1 is to leave. But this is not necessarily so easy if the person you are dealing with is your spouse, boss, co-worker or neighbor. So if you can’t physically get away, what can you do?


You can drink, that’s what you can do. It is amazing how much less difficult a person is when you have blacked out. If alcohol is not your thing, then another wonderful alternative is drugs.

Taking a different approach, some say that the key to getting along with the difficult person (d.p.) is to be compassionate, to understand that people who act like jerks are simply suffering human beings who don’t know how to deal with their pain. This works very well as long as you are nowhere near the d.p. But as soon as he or she appears, and says something like “Where in heaven’s name did you get that shirt?” it is very hard to feel compassion.

But keep trying. It will not work to try to out-jerk the jerk. If you reply to the shirt remark with something like “Where in heaven’s name did you get your stupid mouth?” you will just escalate the situation. A simple unpleasantness could turn into a fight, and remember that many difficult people spend hours at the gym every week and keep themselves in great shape.

Another possibility is to respond as if the d.p. said something perfectly reasonable. So when asked where in heaven’s name you got that shirt, just say, “I got it at Macy’s. Where do you buy your clothes?” When the reply is “Macy’s? That’s a ridiculous place to buy clothes,” you say, “You know, you may be right. I think I’ll start buying them somewhere else.”

When he then says, “Ah, there are no good places to buy clothes. It’s all the same,” you say, “Good point. Thank you!”

You see what you are doing here? You are wearing the difficult person down. Sometimes, underneath the layers of annoying stuff, there is a decent person waiting to be found.

However, sometimes there isn’t. Instead of responding to your thanking him by saying, “Wow, you agree with me?” he might say, “Well I didn’t mean there are absolutely no good places. Hey moron, don’t you get hyperbole?” Since murder is illegal, at this point the only solution is to move to another state. Or perhaps another country.

Now suppose you are the difficult person. First of all, don’t jump to conclusions. How do you know for sure if you are one? Here are some questions to ask yourself to find out.

1. Have you seen “For Sale” signs going up for virtually every house on your block? And perhaps even practically all the homes within a 0.5 mile radius?

2. Have you been married more than five times?

3. Has your mother stopped taking your calls?

4. Has your therapist fired you?

5. Do you have less than one friend?

6. Does your dog hate you?

If you have answered yes to at least two of these questions, I’m afraid you are probably a difficult person. And if you’re reaction to my saying this is to yell out, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you ‘difficult’!” that clinches it.

But there is hope. Not much, but a little. First of all, it’s time to start getting more sleep. Not to help you, but rather for the sake of other people. The more you sleep, the less you’ll be interacting with others. If you’re difficult for only 12 hours a day rather than 14 or 16, that’s a start.

Read self-help books. Again, they won’t help, but any time you spend reading them is time you are not annoying or infuriating others.

There is one comment

  1. Dana Lightman

    Enjoyed your column, especially your questions about how to know if you are a difficult person. Happily, we are all someone else’s d.p. And that is what gives me comfort when I run into my own d.p.!!!

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