Dealing with a Difficult Person, by Guenette du Ville, LMFT
You have at least one in your life, at work, at home or in your social circle. That person with whom you can't seem to communicate, no matter how hard you try. You may think that you are not on even footing with this person, or that he (or she) doesn't get you, or that he does not care a single bit about you. It’s that person who leaves you feeling drained and vulnerable after you talk to him. You tend to avoid him at all costs and only speak to him when you absolutely have to. For the sake of this article, let's call this person a "difficult person.” Can you think of a person like this in your life? In private practice, my clients often come in wanting to address this type of relationship. The relationship can be so problematic that it causes some people to want to quit their job, leave a family relationship, or fall into depression and anxiety.
When we are faced with an interaction with this "difficult person," symptoms of anxiety rise up in us. Our palms may sweat, our hearts may beat faster, and we may feel jittery in anticipation of the encounter. This anticipation may even activate that primitive “Fight or Flight” mode in us. How stressful, all just for a conversation!
I'd like to propose an idea that may help us to avoid that anxiety and manage these encounters. No, it's not complete avoidance of the situation, as it may not be realistic for us to do that. I'm proposing to introduce another element to the mix – the Topic. The Topic represents the subject of the conversation, the reason that you have to interact with the person in first place. With a co-worker, it could be that presentation, that meeting or that project. With a family member, it could be an outing, a birthday party or another family member, like the child. We can choose to focus on the Topic at hand while interacting with that "difficult person.” So instead of focusing on or talking to the Other, we end up talking about the Topic.
Focusing on the person increases the tension.
How does focusing on the person increase the tension in the interaction? When we focus on the difficult person and on our relationship with them, we tend to personalize what she says to us. We have pre-conceived notions of what she thinks of us, and we read signs and signals that reinforce these notions. Even if they’re true, they may not be helpful. In addition, we have our own perceptions about that person, so at times we may react to who we think this person is rather than being present in the interaction and responding to the person in front of us. When we keep reacting to the representation of the person in our mind, we do not allow that person the space to change or try a different way of communicating, because our perception arrests them into a permanent box. And with each interaction, that tension continues to build and causes continuous injuries in the relationship, until we eventually give up, or blow up.
Focusing on the topic decreases the tension
As an alternative, focusing on the topic of the encounter helps us in several ways. When we focus on the topic, we can feel mastery over the subject. We can prepare, plan or research the subject, helping us feel like we have a grasp on it. We have control over how much we prepare, even when we don't have control over the other person’s reaction to what we say. No matter what reaction we receive, we can feel good about our knowledge and preparation.
The topic also de-personalizes the conversation. Instead of it being a face-to-face interaction, the encounter becomes a shoulder-to-shoulder conversation as you both discuss the topic together. When you are shoulder-to-shoulder, your viewpoint becomes more similar. This closer viewpoint can bring down defenses and radically alter the interaction, as the subject of the interaction becomes the Topic, not the people involved.
So the next time you have to engage with a "difficult person," I invite you to try this method and see whether focusing on the topic can decrease the tension in the relationship. Remember that enduring a tense encounter can be done with some preparation and thoughtfulness, and you'll be proud of yourself for having survived the interaction.
The author, Guenette du Ville, LMFT, is accepting new clients and can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 619-272-6858 x702.