My Tried and True Trick for Dealing with Difficult People

My 9th grade shop class (you know, the course where you learn valuable life lessons like how to build a stool and wire an outlet) was taught by a man who may have been the world’s grumpiest teacher. I remember watching him trudge back to his desk after cleaning up yet another mess, shaking his head, and muttering: “Kids. Can’t live with ‘em. Don’t have a job without ‘em.” 

I laughed at the time, and continue to laugh anytime I find myself — now spending part of my work hours in youth ministry — with the same thought running through my head. I genuinely love working with teens… but let’s just say that sometimes they (and their parents) baffle and aggravate me. 

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The same goes for people in general. I can say with 100% conviction that human beings make my life meaningful and happy… and also that my greatest challenges, in work and in my personal life, stem from fellow humans. There’s nothing like an evening spent laughing over Zoom with my youth group to fill me up, and there’s nothing like receiving a critical email from a parent to deflate me. People. Can’t live with ‘em. Don’t have a meaningful life without ‘em.

Since I long ago figured out that my skills and passions incline me towards jobs that involve working with humans who, let’s say it again, can sometimes be tough, I’ve devoted a fair amount of energy to honing my capacities for dealing with difficult people. While I can’t rid the world of challenging individuals, I can change the way that I relate to them in order to make my life more peaceful and my work more effective.

Which brings me back to another piece of wisdom shared with me in school long ago. I was terrified as I entered my first “public speaking” endeavor (a presentation on the geography and culture of Austria), and a friend, noticing my sweaty brow and trembling hands, whispered to me, “Just imagine that the audience is naked!” 

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While that suggestion was about the last thing that would make my awkward and modest 13-year-old self feel comfortable, it did clue me into something: Our imaginations have power. They can change the way we perceive people and circumstances and can therefore change how we feel and act. 

I’m still not one to feel more relaxed by picturing a naked audience, but there is an imaginative practice that has proven immensely helpful for me over the years in dealing with rude, annoying, intimidating, or otherwise difficult people: Imagine that the person troubling me is someone whom I love dearly.

For example, I had a student one year who glared at me every single class with a contemptuous look that made me stumble over my words as knots formed in my stomach…until I started drawing the comparison in my mind between him and one of my brothers. I imagined my brother feeling so shy and unsure of what to say in a class that he couldn’t help but look uncomfortably angry, and in an instant, my heart was softened towards this student and I felt more confident around him. 

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Another time, as an elderly man began talking to me on my bus commute home from work, I found myself reaching for my headphones to shut down the budding interaction. But then I imagined that the man was my grandfather, lonely after having lost his wife of 69 years, and in need of a listening ear. Imagining him as a person I loved made me feel not only open to listening, but desiring to do so. 

This practice, which has come to my assistance time and again, has similarities to a kind of meditation known as loving-kindness. There are variations of the loving-kindness — also called Metta — meditation, but they all involve mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of mantras to an ever-expanding circle of people. 

One begins by evoking feelings of warmth and love for oneself (May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.), and then gradually extends the wish for well-being to all beings. Meditations like these have the power to positively shape our feelings for — and eventually our actions towards — ourselves and others. 

My high school shop teacher may have been a grouch, but he was onto something: People can make our lives more difficult, but without them, we wouldn’t survive. Given this reality, it’s worth figuring out ways to deal with people who challenge us. In cases where changes to the relationships or circumstances are impossible, transforming our attitudes towards the relationships or circumstances may be a good option. Imagining difficult individuals as our loved ones and the loving-kindness meditation are strategies that can help. Try them!

Originally published April 20, 2021.

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