Flyers for workshops entitled “Dealing with Difficult People” come across my desk now and then and certainly a quick Google search on this title brings up a host of websites. It always makes me wonder... Do the people who are being called difficult know this about themselves? Who are the difficult among us and what makes them difficult? It is absolutely true that we not so infrequently encounter people in our lives who we and perhaps even others might describe as difficult. And knowing good skills re: how to manage conversations with these individuals makes really, really good sense. That said, I’d like to explore the difficult people question from another angle. For me, the fundamental question when encountering a difficult person is this: What vulnerability in me is being triggered by this encounter? What have I not come to peace with in my own life that this person’s behaviour is raising to my attention?
Many of us will have encounters with difficult people that come and go so quickly, within days we hardly remember the experience. And then there are those encounters that stay with us much too long, causing us to stay awake at night, creating illness within us... Perhaps this person is a colleague or family member and we cannot escape the difficult encounters. Perhaps we are tired and don’t have the energy to manage the difficult person’s insecurities or moods. Perhaps the other person has, in fact, been inappropriate or rude and their behaviour is not acceptable. All of this could be true. In addition, however, we must face the question from the perspective of our own personhood.
Has the “difficult” person’s behaviour triggered an insecurity we have not resolved? Has our way of communicating triggered an insecurity in the other person that has caused them to react with “difficulty”? A friend shared with me today that when she recently said the following: “That person makes me so mad,” her spouse reminded her that actually she should say, “I allowed myself to make myself mad at that person.” I have believed for a long time that the only person we can change is ourselves; our responsibility in life is to reach ever more toward a greater maturity. One of the first steps on that journey is recognising our own piece of the puzzle whenever we might encounter someone we declare to be difficult.