A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Getting Along With People You Don’t Like

By Victor M

There have been people put on this earth to push your buttons, tick you off, and suck the life out of you. You know who they are.

This statement was written by Marsha Petrie Sue, author of Toxic People. Her observation is one which strongly resonates because most of us have contact with people we just don’t like. They can be frustrating relatives, obnoxious neighbours, exasperating colleagues, annoying customers, an ex-spouse, a demeaning boss. Because we can’t totally avoid humans it’s vital that we learn how to live as harmoniously and productively as possible with those who irritate us.

Here are seven tips for getting along with people you don’t like.

1. Work with this acronym: TLC

The letters stand for Take it, Leave it, or Change it, and are recommended by Ms Petrie Sue as the place to begin when dealing with a challenging individual.
She explains that take it means accepting “events as they are in the moment”, and reminding yourself “that it is okay for right now - maybe not perfect but liveable”.
Leave it is the choice to reject the situation, step out of your comfort zone and say to yourself “I’m not going to accept it the way it is, and I know I can’t change it, so I’m leaving”. Petrie Sue says an example would be losing a client, only to have a better one appear.
Change it may initially feel difficult or overwhelming, but is a viable approach. “Remember, if you can’t accept it and don’t want to leave it, then working for a change is the only remaining option”.

2. Drop the ego

Mr Chuck Norris at home

Self-importance and pride can cause us to react foolishly and carelessly to another person’s behaviour. Anytime you find yourself offended by an individual’s words or acts, do your best to drop the ego. That will then allow you to respond skillfully. In his book, The Secret Power Within, Chuck Norris tells of going to a small Texas restaurant after a long day of filming a television series. He was still dressed in character for his role, “scruffy and dirty from doing a fight scene in the dirt”. He sat in a corner booth enjoying some time alone when a man “large enough to cast a shadow over the table towered over me and said I was sitting in his booth. He suggested, with an edge in his voice, that I vacate to make room for him and his friends”. While Norris didn’t like the tone of his voice or the implicit threat if he failed to comply, Norris said nothing and moved to another booth. A few minutes later some of the stunt men from the show arrived and joined Norris. As the group sat there, Norris noticed the man who threatened him staring and then walk over to Norris’ table. “Here it comes”, thought Norris. “A local tough out to make a name for himself by taking on Chuck Norris in a fight”.

Standing at the table, the man, ignoring the others, looked directly at the actor: “You’re Chuck Norris”. Norris nodded. The man said: “You could have easily beat me up back there. Why didn’t you?” Norris responded: “What would that have proved?” The man, clearly being on the receiving end of a teachable moment, smiled, extended his hand and said: “No hard feelings”. Norris said “none at all”, and shook his hand. The actor, reflecting back on that encounter, writes: “I had avoided a confrontation, made a friend and won by losing”.

3. Before starting into someone, start with yourself

At some point you may conclude that it is necessary to speak with the difficult person and address issues. However, before beginning this kind of conversation, take a close look at your own motives and intentions. This is a biblical teaching: “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticise their faults -- unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbour’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you’, when your own face is distorted by contempt?” (Matthew 7:3-4, Message Bible).

Investigating yourself and your intentions before speaking is also highly recommended by Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, author of The Book of Jewish Values: A Day By Day Guide To Ethical Living. He advises asking these kinds of questions prior to “telling someone just what it is about him or her of which you disapprove”:

  • Are my words necessary?
  • Am I being fair in my critique or might my criticism be exaggerated?
  • Will my words hurt the other person’s feelings and, if so, is there a way to say them that will minimise the hurt?
  • Are my words likely to bring about a change in the other person’s behaviour?
  • How would I feel if someone criticised me in the same way I’m criticising another?
  • How do I feel about offering the criticism? If you find yourself looking forward to admonishing another, don’t do it. Your motives are probably insincere and your criticism will be ineffective.

Rabbi Telushkin concludes with this reminder: “Don’t speak up until you have answered these questions adequately”.

4. Use tactful phrases

Our words can create harmony or hostility. That’s why it’s vital, when speaking with an irritating person, to use phrases which promote clarity and understanding.

Here are some tactful phrases recommended by authors Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon from their book Working With Difficult People:

  • When you disagree with someone say - It seems to me the problem is ... My concern is that we may not have enough ...
  • When emotions are rising say - Let’s talk about this later ... or We don’t have to agree, but is there any reason we can’t be civil ... or You have every right to feel that way if that were the case ...
  • When you need to clear up confusion say - Perhaps I misunderstood you. Are you saying that ....? Let me see if I understand this. Would I be correct in assuming that you feel ...?
  • And if you’re feeling pressured to act, say - I don’t feel comfortable ... Don’t you think it would be a good idea to hold off until ... ?

5. Write, but don’t send, this note

Therapist Leonard Felder, PhD., is the author of When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People. For the book, he conducted a nationwide research study on difficult family members and discovered “that a majority of Americans experience significant tension at one or more family events each year, especially at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Easter, weddings, birthdays, funerals and other rites of passage”. Dr. Felder expected to find 30 or 40 percent of Americans describing family gatherings as tense or unpleasant but was surprised to find that “75 percent of men and women have at least one family member who gets on their nerves”, and 68 percent describing family celebrations as either “frustrating or an obligation” that they don’t enjoy.

Dr. Felder suggests writing, but not sending, a ‘Thank You For Being So Unpleasant’ card. He says this is a highly therapeutic, cleansing act:

“Dear _____, I am so glad you are in my life. Because of you, I have seen more clearly than ever how I don’t want to treat people. You are a brilliant example of exactly what I don’t want to be like. Thank you for being an example that I will carry inside my mind and utilise for the rest of my life”.

Not only does this relieve frustration, but it injects humour into an unpleasant relationship.

6. Use humour

Mountbatten of Burma

Some offending words or acts can be modified and softened with a touch of humour.

Consider this incident from the life of Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s last Governor General of India. In the 1960s he was invited to appear for an interview on the Johnny Carson Show. His staff specifically informed Mr Carson that Mountbatten would answer no questions about the Vietnam War, which was dividing America. Things went smoothly for several minutes during the interview before Carson concluded by asking: “Sir, if you were President of the United States, what would you do about Vietnam?” Without becoming angry or missing a moment, Mountbatten replied: “I’d tell the British to keep their noses out of it”.

7. Always be respectful

Keep in mind that every person deserves respect and civility from you, even if you cannot like them. Here’s a lesson from wartime enemy warriors. During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed a letter sent to the Japanese ambassador in which he declared war on Japan. Churchill signed the letter of war declaration with remarkable courtesy and respect: “I have the high honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S. Churchill”. Later, when copies of his letter were made public, Churchill was criticised, but his response is instructive: “Some people didn’t like this ceremonial style. But after all, when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite”.

Finally, the reality is that we can’t always choose to surround ourselves only with people whom we enjoy and in whose company we flourish. Circumstances often place us in contact with those who are difficult to be with. Rather than falling into frustration and anger, strive to rise higher and respond to problematic individuals with a touch of understanding, kindness, and even compassion. Acting this way generally leads to a more favourable outcome and, if not, acting this way will make you a better human.

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