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The Art of Self-Reflection: Dealing with 'Difficult' People

“I've had some horrible things happen in my life, some of which actually happened.” ― Mark Twain


How should I deal with that one difficult person is perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions when you are active as a coach. Although there is no clear answer, the solution often comes down to the same thing. Look in the mirror at how difficult you are.

This question is usually not appreciated, but those who dare to delve into the question quickly find solutions. It is not literally about how difficult you are as a person, it is about how difficult you make it for yourself through your way of thinking and giving meaning to situations.



Self-reflection is often key to understanding and dealing with challenges in relationships and interactions with others. When we are confronted with “difficult people,” it is often a reflection of our own internal conflicts or beliefs. By asking ourselves questions and examining our own behaviors and thoughts, we can most of the time gain insight into the situation.


It is therefore not always about how 'difficult' we really are, but about the way we interpret situations and give meaning to them. By becoming aware of our own thought patterns, we can become more responsive to others and perhaps even improve our relationships.


What makes someone difficult to get along with?

A lady I coach told me about the complex relationship she has with her sister. She says this goes back to their childhood and is due to her sister's 'emotional outbursts', 'hurtful comments', and various other behaviors.


She has now learned that in interaction with an adult who, in her eyes, behaves 'strangely' you can look at her as a child. This way interaction and communication sometimes become easier. However, this is not the final solution, but more of a temporary tool.


The core of the problem is deeper. It is the lady herself who judges her sister's actions with terms such as 'emotional outbursts' and 'hurtful comments'. In relation to her sister, she cannot see these behaviors neutrally or positively. She has tried to redefine the behavior as a "protection mechanism." But this is not only an attempt to take on the role of a coach or therapist, it also shows that she still sees her sister's behavior as problematic experiences.


However, reality often shows that the behavior and words spoken are not at all as intense as the other person may experience it. It is the meaning that the receiver gives it that makes it intense and that meaning makes it difficult to deal with for the person who gives the meaning.


How can you be loving in a relationship with someone who is difficult to get along with?

If you understand that it is not the person who is difficult, but you who qualify the person as difficult through your meaning, the solution comes a lot closer. You can significantly improve the relationship in the 3 steps below:


  1. Observe what really happens without a colored filter

For example, I have a colleague who always wants to be right. That's my observation, but still with a filter. Namely 'always' and 'wanting to be right'. In reality, it is someone who regularly gives his opinion even if it is different from others.


Due to this 'clean' observation, the word 'always' is immediately deleted. In addition, I can no longer use the statement 'wanting to be right', because he only offers an opinion.


  1. Consider what the other person's behavior reveals about you.

When I do intense research about something, I often take a firm stand. When others disagree with me, it can lead to intense discussions, especially if I cannot convince them of the facts I know and they have not studied the topic themselves. The colleague who has his opinion mainly irritates me because I want to be proven right. So it's not really about him expressing his opinion but about my reaction to it.


In other words, he's not doing anything out of the ordinary, it's my perception that's distorting the situation. When I continue to see him through my irritated filter as "someone who always wants to be right," our relationship is disrupted.


  1. Give the other person's behavior a positive label

Once I am able to let go of my own thought patterns, I can see my colleague's behavior in a more positive light. For example, as an expression of someone with a strong sense of justice, someone who wants to gain deeper insights through discussion and open dialogue, or someone who does not blindly follow the crowd but firmly supports his own beliefs.


By attributing these qualities that I value to that person, he suddenly becomes more valuable in my eyes. What previously seemed like an annoying discussion now becomes a valuable contribution that can strengthen or adjust my opinion on a certain topic. Irritation gives way to gratitude.


When we label someone as annoying, we are often the ones who are annoying.

In personal relationships, it can be challenging to be aware of the meaning we assign to someone and their behavior. Especially when we have known someone for a long time. A small action or comment that resembles something from the past can quickly lead to negative predictions.


Then thoughts arise such as: "Here we go again" or "This isn't going to work out". This is not because the person is doing exactly the same as before, but because of our tendency to generalize.


For example, the last time she raised her voice it ended in an emotional outburst, so it's likely to happen again this time.


Such thoughts say less about the reality of the situation and more about how we can get in our own way. With such an expectation in mind, we are likely to respond in a way that exactly elicits the expected response. There are people who even express their prediction out loud: “Oh no, here we go again! Do we have to go into that emotional stuff again?" Can you imagine how the other person feels and how we come across ourselves?


A positive prediction, such as, "How brave of her to try to find the right words, even though she finds it difficult," can change the entire dynamic. With such an attitude, you as a listener can show more understanding, patience, and empathy, which may make the other person feel calmer and understood. Sometimes it even becomes possible to say sorry that in a dialogue you were able to leave the other person full of emotion.


The 'child' perspective and the importance of positive meaning-making:

In human interactions, the 'child' perspective can help us empathize with others. However, it is not always necessary to understand the origin or reason for someone's behavior in order to put a positive spin on the situation. It is often more productive to simply give positive meaning to their behavior, regardless of its origin.


Why Positive Meaning Making?

Focus on the Present: While many behaviors may have their origins in the past, we live in the present. By putting a positive spin on what is happening now, rather than digging for why, we can respond more effectively and harmoniously.


A Constructive Mindset: Attributing positive meaning to one's behavior can change our mindset. This allows us to be more open to dialogue and understanding, even when we disagree with what is being said or done.


Promoting Positive Interactions: When we choose positivity, we are more likely to receive positivity back. This can lead to more productive and joyful interactions.


Putting Positive Meaning Giving into Practice:

Putting this approach into practice takes practice. When faced with behavior that you perceive as 'difficult', try to take a moment to find positive meaning. Ask yourself, "What is a constructive way to look at this situation?" or "How can I see this behavior in a way that contributes to a positive interaction?" By asking yourself these questions, you train yourself to choose positivity, which in turn can lead to more satisfying and harmonious relationships.


Less judging is more understanding

Judging is a human tendency. Often, almost automatically, we form opinions or judgments about people based on their behavior, words, or even their appearance. This often happens within seconds of meeting someone. Although this is a natural process, based on our brain function and previous experiences, it can be hindered in our interactions and relationships.


From Judging to Understanding:


Limited Perspectives: Our judgments are often based on limited information. They stem from our own experiences, beliefs, and values. By shifting the focus from judging to understanding, we open ourselves to new perspectives and insights.


Avoiding Assumptions: When we judge, we often make assumptions about someone's intentions or character. By seeking understanding, we are more likely to ask for the reasons behind someone's actions or words rather than labeling them based on our own interpretations.


Promoting Connection: Understanding leads to empathy. Empathy strengthens the connection between people. When we stop judging and start understanding, we can build deeper and more meaningful relationships.


Lowering Conflict: Judgements can lead to defensiveness and conflict. Understanding, on the other hand, can lead to open dialogue and problem-solving.


Putting Less Judgements Into Practice:

Shifting the focus from judging to understanding requires awareness and practice. Here are some steps to help:


Self-awareness: Recognise when you are judging. Ask yourself why you feel this way and whether you have all the facts.


Active Listening: Instead of reacting to someone's words or actions, actively listen. Try to understand the emotions and intentions behind their words.


Open Questioning: Instead of making assumptions, ask open-ended questions to find out more about someone's perspective or feelings.


Practice Empathy: Put yourself in the other person's shoes. How would they feel? What might their motivations be?


By choosing understanding over judgment, we create space for growth, learning, and deeper connections with those around us. It allows us to approach interactions with an open heart and mind, leading to more positive and enriching relationships.


Do really annoying people exist?

The world is full of very annoying and difficult people, but most of the time we don't know them personally. Think of dictators or 'elected' representatives who invade other countries like a dictator. That's just annoying. Or people who make money from weapons or ineffective and sometimes even harmful medicines. But also think of people who fight for fun or who can take someone else's life for money. Those are very annoying people. But the sister of the lady I'm talking about and the annoying colleague don't even come close to that.

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