How Difficult People Are a Blessing. Part II – Acquaintances

There are people that just bring out the worst in me.  Their actions and interactions just make me want to grind my teeth, eat Ben & Jerry’s by the carton, and throw cellphones and remote controls to the ground.

My tendency in the past (and sometimes the present) has been to take the path of least resistance and do what is easiest or most gratifying in the moment:   ignore them, avoid them, or complain about them with like-minds, the whole time feeling self-righteous.  Fun, yes.  Effective, no.   After all, I can’t learn to be a better person if my M.O. is to just be the same person.

How can difficult people help me learn to be a better person?  As I mentioned in Part I on Difficult People, the unfortunate common denominator in my toughest relationships – whether with family or acquaintances – is me.   On one hand, it pretty much sucks to know that I’m responsible in these situations (yet again).  On the other hand, it’s pretty much awesome to know that the only thing I have any control over – me – can actually make a difference in improving an unsatisfying situation.

I am the difficult person in these situations because it is my perspective that is causing problems.  First, I have spent too much time wishing the other person would change – they are absolutely, definitively to blame!  This is the easiest, yet least productive approach to dealing with difficult people.  Even if I had control over others, I could not exert any meaningful influence on them by merely wishing for their improvement or enlightenment.    In addition, I may have also objectified that person:  if at I see them as a problem, an obstruction, a means to an end, an annoyance instead of a real human being with wishes, desires, insecurities and fears, then I am reinforcing this dysfunctional dynamic.

Fortunately, since it is my perspective that is causing problems, simply changing my perspective can make an impact.   When I stop blaming and seek to understand, then progress, collaboration, and good will become options.   It has become easier with time to swallow my pride and invite the difficult other to lunch or coffee (my treat) so that I can get to know him on a more personal level.  When I do take the trouble, I learn that they have goals, dreams, hot buttons, talents and deep-seated desires to be appreciated and liked, just like me.  Often I find we share much more common ground than I anticipated, and that communication styles sometimes create unnecessary friction and barriers to finding commonality.  Usually I find that any perceived disrespect, animosity, or judgment has more to do with my own hot button issues rather than theirs.  The reverse is also true.  Sometimes their negativity has more to do with their struggle with their own hot buttons, and less to do with me.

Actually, there are honest-to-God benefits to having difficult people in my life.  When I put aside my own ego, defensiveness and fear, then a feeling of empowerment is available to me when I can build a bridge.   It’s an opportunity to learn more about myself, what pushes my buttons and how to better manage my own issues.  It provides an opening to practice being empathic and supportive of someone who has a completely unfamiliar perspective.  It’s a chance to completely change the way I view a situation, and thus to become enlightened.  It creates options for me to help another widen their view of the possibilities.  It allows me to practice the belief that people are more effective when working as a team.  In the end, it’s my responsibility to manage myself, not to manage someone else.  And when I change my behavior and approach someone with empathy and curiosity instead of judgment, then they’re more likely to reciprocate.

I once read a story about the Buddha who kept a whiny, annoying, demanding disciple close by.  The student constantly needed attention and affirmation and yet was argumentative and critical.  One day someone asked the Buddha why he kept this difficult student so close by.  Buddha responded that the disciple was not his student.  He was his teacher.  In other words, the Buddha practiced his patience, empathy and forgiveness at the feet of this contentious companion.

Eckhart Tolle, philosopher extraordinaire, says that we create our own reality.  Therefore, if we perceive a problem, then it is because we have created the problem.  Therefore, if I feel someone else is creating difficulty, then that is the reality that I have created for myself.  I can choose to disassemble that reality into one that is more productive, healthier and forgiving.  I can choose understanding, patience, and curiosity over criticism, judgment and marginalization.  In doing so, I am also choosing to prioritize our common humanity, my personal growth and peace of mind over conflict and division.

Do you believe we create our own reality and our own problems?  Please share your story.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous
Wears yet a precious jewel in its head

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It


Fighting fair