The Yoga of Dealing with Difficult People

Living Yoga Yoga

“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – Ram Dass


Every month I write a piece for the YYoga blog. A member of the marketing team sends me a list of topic ideas, and I pick one. The topic I picked for March was: Deal with that difficult personality gracefully – and it was initially a difficult one to write about. After thinking about it for a few days and trying a number of different approaches, I woke up this morning with the clear sense that the best way to write this piece was to simply share ideas.

Here are some thoughts I have about how to be more graceful when you find someone difficult to deal with:

See the bigger picture

Last October, I wrote a piece about why it is challenging for us to focus on the things we are grateful for. Simply, it is because we are programmed to hone in on the things that are potentially threatening to us. Scientists refer to it as a negativity bias.

If you have ever been in front of room full of people for any reason, you can likely relate to the tendency to fixate on the one person who doesn’t seem happy with what you are doing. The room might be full of ninety-nine happy and encouraging people, but if one person is scowling and crossing their arms, that one person has a way of capturing 99% of your energy. This is the negativity bias in action.

A first step in dealing with difficult people more gracefully is to stay present with the reality that this difficult person is only one of many people in your life. It is easy to let difficult people become “energy vampires”. Train yourself to focus more on the supportive people in your life and be mindful about how much energy you give to the people you find difficult.

Acknowledge your role

We are inside our own heads. We have access to our own thoughts and intentions. With this insider scoop, it can be easy to side with ourselves in a difficult interpersonal situation and blame the other person for the difficultly. But, it takes two people to create an easy or difficult interaction, and, in any given interaction, we are only ever going to understand half of what happened.

Because we don’t have access to the other person’s thoughts, we might not be able to see or understand how we are contributing to the situation, but we increase our capacity for grace when we hold space for the possibility that we are doing things to make the interaction more difficult for the other person.

Find the good

If our interactions with another person are difficult, we can easily fall into the trap of seeing them as a difficult person. We even speak about difficult people like there are people out there that are universally difficult. It may be true; it may not. But, we don’t increase our own capacity for acting with grace when we fail to see what lies beyond the difficultly.

The next time you find yourself labelling a person as difficult, take some time to consider what else you know about this person. Maybe they are exceptionally creative? Do they have a knack for making other people laugh? Paint a bigger picture so that you can more easily honour them as another human being when you interact with them.

Own your behaviour

When we feel like other people are being difficult, it can be very easy to be difficult back. Instead of making a concerted effort to behave in a way that aligns with our values, we might revert to more passive aggressive behaviour, like making snide remarks. It is also easy to feel justified in our reactive behaviour when we only know our side of the story.

One way to manage this tendency to be difficult back is to commit to holding yourself accountable for your behaviour. Other people can make us feel things, but they can’t control our actions. You might feel justifiably angry in response to someone else’s behaviour, but anger is an emotion and you are responsible for how you respond to both the emotion and to the person who provoked it.

Be emotionally curious

Difficult behaviour often stems from unexpressed emotions like failing to tell someone we are angry or that our feelings have been hurt. Our emotions have a way of creeping to the surface, and they can be quite dangerous when they aren’t acknowledged.

If you are able to be in a difficult interaction without taking things personally, you might also start to consider the possible unmet emotional needs of this person. You might have more success finding ease in the interaction if you address their emotions before their words.

Talk about the difficultly

If you are comfortable being vulnerable in the relationship, talking about the difficulty you are experiencing can be a giant step in the direction of finding more ease. Things are often much easier to handle when they are acknowledged.

Accept the challenge

But some people are just difficult!”

I don’t know if it is true, but it can feel like it! Sometimes I try everything I have outlined above and more, and the interactions are still challenging. What I am trying to learn in these circumstances is how to accept and appreciate that some people will be more challenging to me. It doesn’t mean that there is a problem with these people; it doesn’t mean that I am not evolved enough to find ease with this person. It also doesn’t mean that the relationship is not worthwhile.

Sometimes we just love people who are harder for us to relate to. Sometimes the fatigue and the frustration that can come along with more difficult relationships are more than worth it in the end.

Stay grounded in your intention

Why are you persisting in this difficult relationship? Work? Family? There are lots of reasons why you might persist in difficult relationships, but take the time to clarify why you are sticking with the difficult ones in your life.

Some people fall into the trap of wanting everyone to like them, and they will persist relentlessly to make relationships work for the sake of their own ego or their own sense of ease. Make sure that continuing a difficult interpersonal relationship is a wise use of your energy.

Difficult interactions can be great learning opportunities. They challenge us to look at things differently and to think more about how we come across. They test our courage and our compassion. Difficult and challenging experiences of human interaction also help us to see the beauty and magic in moments of deep human connection.

And sometimes the difficult interactions turn into the beautiful ones.

Sarah Jamieson