Dealing with difficult people

Rev. Meg Barnhouse
February 26, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

Some people are harder to be comfortable with than others. How do we deal kindly with people who are difficult?

Call to Worship
– Albert Schweitzer

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

– Rabindranath Tagore

“When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.”

Skit by the Healthy Relations team

Two actors face one another with coffee mugs.

Penelope: talking on and on

Dorothy: nodding, eye contact. She says something that is encouraging, like “Oh, my,” or “Is that so?”

Narrator claps to freeze the action: Penelope and Dorothy are talking at coffee hour. Penelope is what we call “A Talker!” Right now, Dorothy is giving listening cues. She’s making eye contact and nodding.

Claps to start action again

Penelope: resumes talking on and on

Dorothy tries to respond a couple of times to no avail, then deflates.

Narrator claps to freeze action:

After a couple of failed attempts to engage, Dorothy realizes that this is going to be more of a monologue than a dialogue. Notice how her enthusiasm for this encounter fizzles.

Claps to start action again.

Penelope keeps talking.

Dorothy looks at her watch. She drops her eyes, looks at the floor, looks around.

Narrator claps to freeze the action: Dorothy looks at her watch. She ends eye contact. These are cues that should let Penelope know that listening is coming to an end.

Now, Penelope is going to keep talking. Look, she’s closed her eyes so she can keep talking without seeing the cues Dorothy is trying to give. But Dorothy has some skills for just this situation. What would you do?

Claps to start action again

Dorothy looks up, puts her arm on Penelope’s arm, (Penelope is still talking) and says, over Penelope’s talking “You’ll have to excuse me, I have to go ask my husband something.” Smiling, she walks away.

Narrator: Many of us have been taught not to interrupt, but in situations like this, it’s actually okay. Have you met a Penelope? Have you been a Penelope? What might you do differently next time?


People, huh? Some of us have been in this situation as the listener, some as the talker, and some of us have been on both sides. To paraphrase the Quakers, “Everyone’s a little difficult except me and Thee, and even thee’s a little difficult.” I’m talk about how to deal with difficult people this morning, and I want you to know that, like a Freshman Psychology major, I find myself a little bit in each example of difficult people.

The over talker is difficult, especially for people who are wired more toward wanting to consider their own words before talking. By the time there is a break in the conversation, if there ever is, the time for them to say what they wanted to contribute to the dialogue has passed. There are people who control a situation by filling up the space with their own thoughts. They are out of balance. Most people who are difficult for us are difficult for everyone, and usually it’s because they are out of balance internally, or they were raised in an environment which was out of balance, and they had to adapt to that in order to survive.

If over talking happens in a meeting or at work we might wait for the person who is the facilitator to say something to them, like “thank you. Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.” If you are with them and feeling taken advantage of, you might do as Dorothy did, make the social signals that you are ready to be done, and if those don’t work, tough the person’s arm and say you need to go. If that feels rude, consider that, by holding you against your will, they were being rude first. The Buddhist teaching to do no harm comes into play here. Do no harm to others, or to yourself. If someone is taking more of your time or your energy than you are willing to give, they are doing you harm, and you do them harm by allowing them to do wrong.

We make those cultural signals, but some people are difficult because they don’t share your culture’s signals. When I was the Chaplain at a women’s college in SC, at least once or twice every September I’d have a nice young women in tears in my office. “My roommate hates me!” she’d say. I would ask for examples. “She doesn’t smile at me, she’s rude, she talks mean to me, and she doesn’t help me when I ask her to.”

In Southern culture, girls smile. When you see each other, you say hey. You have little chats about nothing much, to establish connection. When someone says “my this is heavy,” you recognize that as a request for help. When you have something to say about someone, you don’t say it directly, you find some slantwise way to say it that feels gentler to you.

Her roommate wasn’t doing any of that. Finally I learned to ask “Where is your roommate from?”

“B-B-B-Boston…” Different culture.

Some difficulties are caused by us not reading one another’s cultural signals. The cure for this is talking about it, and most therapist type people will recommend and “I statement” format. “When you do ______ I feel _______” “When you don’t look up at me and smile when I come into the room, I feel like you wish I weren’t there.”

What are some other techniques people use for being difficult? They don’t listen, or if they hear your words, they don’t seem to comprehend them. Some folks are out of balance in a way that makes their inner mind very noisy, and they can barely hear you over all the lists, resentments, fears, plans, obsessions, and worries inside their own minds. Sometimes it can be effective to stop the conversation periodically and ask the other person to repeat back to you their understanding of what you said. Then you repeat to them your understanding and memory of what they said, and when you’re on solid ground together then you go on. I used to trust this method more than I do now, having had experiences with a couple of folks long ago and far away where they repeated what I said and they told me I was understanding them correctly, and a couple of days after the conversation that understanding seemed to have evaporated. It still is useful, even if it’s not infallible. I did have a friend who said he and his wife had stopped fighting because all the rules their marriage counselor gave them about communicating just made it too much trouble.

Some people are difficult because their head is full of assumptions about you. Some folks truly believe that lesbians hate men, and that could skew their perceptions of me. Those of us who are people of color have had many experiences with assumptions and stereotypes. So your mama says you have to be twice as good as white people, you must be exceptional. And we make movies about exceptional People of Color, but we won’t be in a just world until a mediocre person of color can get as far as a mediocre white person.

Some people are difficult for me because they are chaos people. Their plans are always done at the last minute, their hair is always on fire, they only know the answers to the questions about what’s happening, where things are, how it will go, , so every part of the event has to go through them personally. Or they want to decide everything on a case by case basis rather than going by the book, so things feel unfair and subjective, and the whole operation rests on their shoulders alone. They don’t delegate and they don’t communicate, so people around them get exhausted and burned out trying to be part of their show. It might work well for them, but not as well for people who are on their crew. I try not to be on projects with this kind of person. If I am, I try to be the boss of the project so I can lay out guidelines and deadlines.

Some people’s technique for being difficult is what writer Julia Cameron calls the “wet-blanket matadors.” You have nice forward motion, you and the rest of the crew are going places, and this person slows it all down. “Let’s think about this some more, let’s ask three more agencies’ thoughts on the matter, we tried this before and it didn’t work twenty years ago in 1996.”

Some trainers recommend that you just avoid these folks who are difficult for you if you can avoid them. “Fly like an eagle,” one advises, rise above the fray. That can work. If the person is your boss you can try to transfer or find another job. Many of you have changed jobs for that reason. Sometimes you just can’t avoid the person. They are your parent or your child, your sister or your spouse. Michelle Obama couldn’t avoid all the people who made cruel and racist comments about her. “When they go low, we go high,” she said. Sometimes we can rise above, but sometimes it feels impossible.

Many people are difficult because they are out of balance, and others are difficult because they just don’t share the values we hold dear. They want us to do things we feel uncomfortable with, or things we think are wrong. We can’t change them, usually. We only have ourselves to work with. Sometimes we can change the environment, leak their secrets to the press or let the boss’s boss know what’s going on. There are risks involved with trying to change the status quo.

Most teachers will tell us that people who are difficult for us are our best teachers in life. How would we know what we need to work on next in ourselves if it weren’t for that boss driving us crazy or that sister who makes us paralyzed with resentment?

One of my teachers, a woman named Byron Katie, has a series of questions she asks you to ask yourself as you investigate a resentful thought you have. She offers a “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet that you fill out, letting yourself say the truest most judgmental things possible. I found a video this week of her working with a young woman. Sweetie, she said, “Thought appears, what’s your thought?” The woman read from the sheet. “My mother is manipulative, controlling and deceitful. She won’t let me be who I am, and she’s trying to make me exactly like her.” Katie asked for an example. The woman looked blank for a minute. “Well, she thinks I’m wrong about everything.”

“That controls you how?” Young woman looks blank. “So your mom wants to control you, is that true?”

Yes, the woman says. “Are you sure that’s true?” The woman looks a little uncertain, then thinks of another example.

“I made a scrap book of my values, and showed it to her. She said she thought all my values were wrong.” Katie nodded.

“You asked her what she thought and she told you. How does that control or manipulate you?” “How do you act when you think that thought, that your mother is trying to control and manipulate you?” The woman said she acted angry, and withheld conversation and company from her mother. She just wanted her mom to love and respect her for who she was.

Let’s turn this thought around, Katie suggested. The famous turn-around. I’m controlling and manipulative?” The woman tried. K nodded. Yes, sweetie, you’re trying everything you can to make your mother respect your values. Who should respect you and your values?

Me? K nodded. “You make a book of your values and asked her what she thought. She was honest with you but you don’t respect and love her for who she is. You want her to change. Her values are her values and your values are your values. If you respect yours and you love her without trying to manipulate and control her, she won’t be able to hurt you.

So your mother is manipulating and tries to control you. “Who would you be without that thought?” Katie asked. The young woman thought she’d be much happier without thinking her mother was deceitful and controlling. She’d be able to have a nice life and be around her mom.

The fourth question: “Can you think of a non-stressful reason to hold onto that thought? I’m not asking you to let it go, I’m just asking if there is a sane reason to hold on to it.” The woman shook her head.

She calls this form of inquiry “The Work,” and you can get everything free on her web site. Her techniques are not infallible or universally applicable, but they can be very helpful.

So how to deal with difficult people? Avoid if you can. “Take your sails out of their wind,” the 12 step people say. What might that mean in your situation? Ask yourself what would it mean for me to take my sails out of their wind? I bet some kind of answer will come to you. Sometimes you change your environment and sometimes you change yourself. Talk to them directly, with love, if you can. Make your position clear. Be clear and loving in what you ask them to do instead of what they’re doing. “I will be able to stay in the conversation with you much better if you speak to me respectfully and with kindness.” “We will be able to have a much more productive work life if you tell me the truth/don’t lay claim to my ideas/etc.

So: avoid, take your sails out of their wind, talk directly to them. Other ideas: Pema Chodron, a renowned Buddhist teacher, says “Take the target off your back.” She means by this that we can get caught up in the fire of aggression, and that if we have an inner quiet, if we are strong inside, we can refuse to respond to aggression with aggression, and its fires will die out, or find some other target to hit. Rabbi Jesus said that too “Don’t return evil for evil, but return good for evil.” It’s a way to drive your enemies crazy, he said.

I have seen good luck and bad luck with this. For two years after a friend divorced her husband, he was so angry when they talked on the phone, it felt abusive. She was a good Buddhist and kept her aggression low, speaking kindly and with respect. It got worse and worse. She wrote him that he had lost his privilege of talking to her on the phone, and that they would communicate about the children by email only from then on. The emails were so terrible, they were hard to read. She wrote back kindly and with respect, but they got worse and worse. Finally she asked her friend Charlie at work to read them for her, pick out the information she needed, where he would pick up the children, etc. and delete the rest. They kept being terrible until the day she wrote “the person who reads your emails for me said you were going to pick the boys up at 5, and that’s fine with me.” I call that technique letting the sun shine on reality. I don’t know why, but some people who want to treat you badly count on you for some reason to protect them and their reputation. Why is that?

I could go on for an hour describing various different ways to be a difficult person, and suggesting strategies for dealing with each different way, and that’s fun, but the main way to deal with irritating, annoying people (not the evil ones or the ones who are out to destroy you) is by changing yourself. There is the metta prayer, where you pray for them everything you want for yourself. I’ve spoken to you about this before. The 12 step folks call it the Resentment Prayer.

There is doing a little research to see if you can get to an understanding of why they are the way they are, and then your stance toward them will be as it is toward a broken person, with somewhat more compassion.

There is research into their culture to see if you can read their actions differently, in the context of their own ways.

There is asking yourself whether they are really trying to drive you crazy by being so awful. Is it true? How do you feel when you think that thought? Can you think of a sane reason to keep that thought? What happens if you turn your complaint about them around? Is there truth in it when the finger is pointing your way?

The Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, says you have to build your own good character. You have to be soft on the outside and hard on the inside. Most people are the opposite. Soft on the outside and hard on the inside means you have begun and continue to shape your good character. The point of doing that is to be able to see more and more clearly what is the next right thing to do.

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