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How to Communicate with Difficult People

by Judith Orloff MD
how to communicate with difficult people

Effective communication is all about surrender.

By surrender, I don’t mean letting someone walk all over you.

Surrender is about knowing when to be assertive, and when to let go. It means both expressing your feelings and having a willingness to release hurt and resentments that close your heart. It’s about being fluid rather than rigid, controlling, or oppositional.

how to communicate with difficult people

Your ability to go with the flow is particularly important when dealing with difficult people.

Here are five types of difficult people and some communication strategies for each type.

5 Difficult Personality Types & How to Communicate with Them

1. The Anger Addict

These types deal with conflict by accusing, attacking, humiliating, or criticizing.

To start, surrender your reactivity. Take a few short breaths to relax your body. Count to 10. Pause before you speak. If they’re spewing verbal venom at you, imagine that you’re transparent and their words are going right through you.

To disarm an angry person, acknowledge their position, and then politely say you have a slightly different approach you’d like to share. Request a small, doable change that can meet your need. Then clarify how it will benefit the relationship.

Finally, empathize. Ask yourself what pain or inadequacy might be making this person act so angry.

2. The Passive-Aggressive Person

These types express anger with a smile, an exaggerated concern, or an act, but always maintain their cool.

Start by surrendering your doubt. In other words, trust your gut reactions and the feeling that their behavior feels hurtful. Say to yourself, “I deserve to be treated more lovingly and with more respect.”

If the person is someone you can speak directly with–a spouse as opposed to a boss–address the behavior specifically and directly. You could say, for example, “I would greatly appreciate it if you remembered our meeting time. My time’s very valuable, as is yours.”

If the person doesn’t or won’t change, you have the option to simply accept it.

3. The Narcissist

These people have an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement, crave attention, and require endless praise. Some are obnoxious ego-maniacs, others can be quite charming. Both types know how to play you like a fiddle–by making you serve them or putting you down.

First, surrender the belief that you can win them over with loyalty and love. Narcissists value control and power over love, and they lack empathy.

Next, don’t make your self-worth dependent on them. Seek out loving friends instead.

Finally, to get your goals met with narcissists, frame your request in ways they can hear–such as showing them how your request will be beneficial to them. Flattery also works. Although ego stroking is tedious, it brings results.

4. The Guilt Tripper

These types are world-class blamers, martyrs, and drama queens. They know how to make you feel terrible about something by pressing your insecurity buttons.

To start, surrender the notion that you have to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, so if the guilt tripper is scolding you, you can simply apologize or take responsibility, and that will shut them down.

If you get fixated on a mistake you made, find a safe place to cry. Tears will cleanse the stress and help you heal.

Also, know your guilt buttons. If there’s something you feel bad about, you can work on being compassionate with yourself so you’ll feel stronger when the other person tries to push that particular button.

Finally, set limits with the guilt tripper. Tell them you can see their point of view, but that it hurts your feelings when they say those things, and you’d be grateful if they stopped saying it.

5. The Gossip

These busybodies delight in talking about others behind their backs, putting them down, and spreading harmful rumors. They also try to draw you into their toxic conversations.

Start by surrendering the need to please everyone or control what they say. Then be direct. Say, “Your comments are inconsiderate and hurtful. How would you like people talking about you like that?”

You can also refuse to participate by simply changing the subject.

Don’t share intimate information with gossip mongers.

And finally, don’t take gossip personally. Realize that gossips aren’t happy or secure. Do what you can to rise to a higher place, and ignore them.


dr judith orloffJudith Orloff MD, assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and New York Times bestselling author, is author of the new book, The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life (April 1, 2014). Dr. Orloff teaches workshops nationwide, has given a TED talk on this book, and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS, CNN, NPR, and many others.

Featured photo by Victor1558

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