Many of my clients sign up for coaching in order to develop their executive presence – that is the ability to show up confident, calm, and present – especially when dealing with difficult individuals. A recent client shared that one of his peers was making rude comments about my client in front of others. As a result, my client felt himself getting triggered when he came into contact with his peer. My client was concerned because he had to work regularly with this peer and intuitively understood that his colleague’s behavior was not going to change.
As you (unfortunately!) know, difficult colleagues – as well as people in our personal lives – come in many shapes, sizes and flavors, including being overly critical, bossy, unaware of how their behavior impacts others, and even – on the more extreme side – self-centered, mean–spirited, and manipulative.
Since difficult people are not always interested in or capable of insight, most likely they are not going to change. Therefore, it’s really up to you to change how you show up, so that you can remain confident and grounded and protect yourself from their negative energy.
While I don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach for dealing with difficult individuals, you can experiment with different self-management strategies to better manage difficult individuals and situations and build your inner resources.
I would say the overall goal when dealing with difficult individuals is to learn how to expand your window of tolerance for dealing with discomfort (an important life skill!), train in the skill of compassion – toward yourself and others, and ultimately feel happier and more resilient.
Here are a few different self-management strategies clients have successfully used when engaging with difficult individuals – hope you find them useful!
Set a Goal for the Interaction. Your objective is to remain present, calm and grounded and find some peace and ease during a difficult moment. For example, when I start to feel triggered, I will get grounded in my body, feel my feet on the floor, and start to focus on my breath. See Get Present and Grounded below for more information on how to use your body and breath to remain present, calm, and grounded.
Prepare. Take time and space to prepare for a difficult interaction. It’s helpful to prepare by writing out your goal and process, meditating, and/or taking a walk. Click here to download a worksheet clients often find useful when preparing for a difficult situation.
Have Compassion for Yourself, First. Acknowledge that it’s tough and often draining to deal with toxic individuals. Make sure you give yourself sufficient space to prepare to be with them and engage in self-care after the situation to recover and renew your energy.
Have Compassion for the Other Person. While it doesn’t excuse their behavior, recognize the other person is behaving the way they are because they are suffering. One technique to help with this is a loving kindness meditation – you are welcoming in self–compassion and extending compassion to the other person. You really do it for yourself, because it helps you remain more at peace and find some ease in a difficult situation. For more information, click here to read Loving Kindness Takes Time by Sharon Salzberg.
Get Present and Grounded. Use your body and breath to find a sense of equilibrium and ease. Continue to focus on your breath and bring your attention to your feet planted firmly on the floor. Connect with your own breath by counting to three on the in–breath and five on the out–breath – which will activate your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system and stop the fight or flight (sympathetic system) response.
Take a Break. It can be very challenging to remain calm and grounded for an extended period of time, so continue to check in with your goal and feelings during the difficult conversation. If and when you feel like you’re losing your grounding and going into overwhelm (fight or flight) mode, ask to take a coffee or bathroom break, return to your breathing, and remind yourself of your goal. One client found it calming and grounding to place her open right hand over her heart as she took three deep breaths.
Stay Out of Drama and Be Solutions Focused. Remain clear about your best intention and vision for the meeting and relationship – so that you can come from a place of being grounded and centered – versus reactive.
Acceptance. Recognize you are not responsible for the other person’s behavior and they are (most likely) not going to change. Sometimes, by showing up grounded and calm, you can have a positive impact on the other person. But sometimes you cannot. Your goal is to remain grounded and calm – and try to find some ease in a difficult moment – regardless of how the other person behaves.
Let Go. It’s the same thing as acceptance. Remember it’s not your job to fix or change the person: Even if you are in a situation where it is your job to provide feedback about their behavior or actions, the other person is ultimately responsible for their own thoughts, words, and actions.
Forgive but Don’t Forget. By forgiving the other person, you are not condoning their actions but rather cultivating a self-care practice that releases you from toxic and negative feelings and enables you to meet difficult individuals where they are, free from judgment – in order to keep your energy calm and grounded. But it’s important to note that you should always do your best to project yourself from being in harms way. Forgiveness does not mean condoning their actions. Click here to learn more about establishing a forgiveness practice through meditation or journaling.
Establish Energetic Boundaries. Some clients find it helpful to visualize a spacious circular bubble around their body so they feel protected by a cushion of space. Then, if the other person says something that is upsetting, imagine it bouncing back off the bubble and right back at them. This approach keeps their negative energy from entering into your own personal space.
Maintain a Sense of Humor. You only have to be with this person (hopefully!) for a short amount of time. They have to live with themselves 24 hours a day.
Remember it’s a practice, so experiment with different strategies and always go easy and gentle on yourself!