Dealing with Conflicting Personalities

By Kristen
Page Updated on December 04, 2007

You love them, but your personalities just don't mesh. You frequently argue or get frustrated with each other. Sometimes it's a one-sided feeling of frustration while other times it's mutual.

Your New Mantra: "I can't change other people. I can only control myself."

One of the most difficult things to do when we believe that we are right and others are wrong is to accept that you can't change their minds. Likewise, you can't change their habits, their lifestyle, their addictions, etc. It doesn't matter if you are trying to help them improve their lives, persuade them to take on your political or social views for the good of humanity, teach them about basic concepts, etc. It's easy to let go of conflicts that only happen once in awhile, but what do you do when every day is a struggle, when every conversation is a conflict? What do you do when you dread seeing or talking to this person because you know it's going to end in an argument or belittlement or worse?

The 3 Steps of Dealing with Difficult People Gracefully: Understanding, Compassion, and Response

I truly believe that understanding is the root of all happiness. In understanding a person's actions or beliefs, we realize that their actions and beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with us. Once we understand why people do what they do, we are able to have compassion for them.

It is important to note that having compassion for somebody does not mean that you are in any way obligated to fix their problem. Your needs are always the priority in these situations because you can't change other people, you can only control yourself. (Remember your mantra.) You can't meet their needs for them. They must learn to meet their needs themselves. Likewise, you must meet your own needs yourself, and if you spent all of your time and energy trying to fix somebody else's problems, you would never have time and energy to meet your own needs.

Finally there is the response. How do you respond to "difficult" people? It often depends on the situation.

  • Situation: Your family is giving you a hard time about a choice that you have made for your life (job, money, partner, etc.), and they're criticizing you.

    Understanding: "They are trying to help me. They just aren't doing it in a very effective way."

    Compassion: "It's too bad they don't see that I'm happy with the choices that I've made."

    Response: "Well, thank you for being concerned about me." No further explanation is necessary.

  • Situation: A friend of yours is very demanding and always seems to want your attention, causing you to feel simply drained after every encounter.

    Understanding: "She has self-esteem issues and feels like she needs to have attention to feel important. She thinks that I'm important, so my attention is important to her."

    Compassion: "It's too bad she doesn't realize that she is important even when nobody is paying attention to her."

    Response: "Oh, I have some important things I have to do, so we'll need to get together some other time." There is no need to explain what you need to do.

  • Situation: Somebody insults you. (It doesn't matter what the insult is.)

    Understanding: "They are simply projecting their own beliefs about the world on me."

    Compassion: "It's too bad they have such a limited view of the world. There are so many wonderful things that they could bring into their lives if they just opened their hearts and minds to all of the good things that are a part of diversity."

    Response: "OK" or "Interesting" or "I disagree." There is no need to respond to insults any further than that. They don't any further response. Someone who is insulting wouldn't listen to your response anyhow and would just prefer to argue. Simply acknowledges that you heard what the other person was saying. Then remove yourself from the situation (end the conversation, hang up the phone, leave the room, etc.).

Making More Space and Getting Your Distance

Sometimes, the only way to deal with the situation is to avoid it in the first place by avoiding contact with the difficult person.

You can easily create some distance (most of the time) by having "other obligations" much of the time. You don't have to say "I don't want to see you or talk to you as much." You just need to let them know that you do have other things to do, responsibilities, obligations, etc., and you need to spend more time focusing on those things.

If you live with this difficult person, you may want to consider moving out. If moving out is not an option, you may need to find activities away from the person. Joining a class, volunteering somewhere, etc. will get you out of the house. Even working in the yard every day can help (assuming that the person doesn't say, "Great! I'll go with you" because then you'll have to come up with plan B).

Getting Professional Counseling

In some situations, you may need to work with a professional counselor to figure out how to heal the relationship. Couples counseling, group counseling, family counseling, etc. are perfect for getting everyone together to talk about problems in a constructive way.

(If you believe this difficult person has a mental illness or some other mental problem that requires professional help, you can send a letter to his/her doctor and find out what mental health resources are available in your area to address the problem, but you cannot force an adult into treatment if he/she is not a danger to himself or others and is considered mentally competent.)

If the difficult person refuses to go to counseling with you, or if the person is a customer, co-worker, neighbor, etc. (let's face it, we don't ask our customers to come to counseling with us), don't rule out counseling as an option. You can still make great strides by attending counseling by yourself.

Ending the Relationship

Typically, you'll want to make an effort to find out if an official breakup is absolutely necessary, especially if this difficult person is a family member. In my experience, and in talking to others, I have learned that a one-on-one conversation is often the best way to determine if the relationship can heal and continue or must come to an end. A professional counseling can also help you make the decision. If a relationship clearly can't continue in a healthy way, then a breakup may be necessary.

(There is one exception to the breakup option: if the difficult person is a child under your care or a child related to you, you do have an obligation to continue the relationship, to continue to reach out to that child. Ending a relationship with a child is equivalent to giving-up on that child. No one should ever give up on a child. Seek professional counseling instead.)

Don't Feel Guilty

The most important thing to remind yourself is that it's all right to avoid the difficult person. It's all right to end the relationship. You shouldn't have to force yourself to deal with a person who brings unnecessary stress and unhappiness to your life.

Likewise, don't feel guilty about not being able to fix the situation. Remember, you can't fix other people. The best you can do is give them an inspiring self-help book and the name of a good counselor. Then leave it to them to take the necessary steps to help themselves.

Meanwhile, you should focus on helping yourself regain balance, well-being, and happiness.