How To Deal With Difficult People

You know those people in your life who drive you crazy—the ones who make promises they don’t keep, defend themselves relentlessly, and who say the exact words that leave you feeling inadequate? Sometimes they are sly with their criticism, using sarcasm to make their unkind words “Just a joke.”

We’ve all met people like this.

In fact, many of us do our best to avoid them, even though working with them is sometimes unavoidable. The good news is that the greatest teachers are typically the ones who push our buttons the most.

Fortunately, nature teaches us how to handle such challenging people.

A few weeks ago, Yvette (my wife) and I were on a hike up to Bob’s overlook at Cunningham State Park. A little over an hour later, we reached Bob’s outlook and were completely taken by the rolling hills to the right, the wide-open vista of the flat lands and the cliffs all around us.

Inspired, we snuggled up the edge of the cliffs to take it all in. Standing maybe a foot or two feet from the edge, I stood motionless as Yvette screeched and began tap dancing to the tune of a sizable rattlesnake, which had coincidently made its way a half inch from my boot.

Looking down at the snake, and then back up at her as she shook her hands to release some of the fearful energy, I said, “I’m not afraid.”

(Side note: While I would love to that I’m a badass, but I must admit, my response had nothing whatsoever to do with my conscious intention—It’s just what happened.)

Watching the snake slither toward the crack in the rocks while also taking note of at least two other rattlers within a foot of us, I felt the opposite of fear—I felt calm and grateful to be in their presence. We had, after all, encroached on their sunning spot.

“You go ahead and have your moment with them, but I’m keeping my distance,” Yvette said, as I first waited for them to retreat and then made my way down the rocks and out onto the next set of cliffs where the view was even more beautiful.

Soon after, Yvette followed and we got to enjoy a delicious snack as we took in the stunning view.

The next day, we headed home, where I bumped into one of those difficult people in my life. He’s someone who has repeatedly shown me his capacity for meanness through sarcasm.

Forgetting about his tendency, and wanting to connect, I engaged him in a conversation about my time at the cabin. As I shared about my joyful experience over the weekend, he fired off a few sarcastic comments. Noticing my discomfort, I opted out of the conversation quickly.

Soon after, it occurred to me that his sarcasm was much like the snakes rattle—a warning sign of sorts. Just as I would not try petting a snake when it’s rattling, it makes no sense to engage with people who are rattling (acting in unkind ways toward us).

We don’t always tie these same principles back to the people in our lives who rattle, yet the opportunity to free ourselves of the painful behaviors is the same. It seems almost natural to force others to be honest, loving, kind—you name the behavior you want—instead of accepting them as they are and disengaging when they rattle.

People rattle, especially when (for seemingly no good reason) they’re uncomfortable, angry or otherwise triggered. While we may not ever know why they’re triggered or upset, we can honor them and simply back away. In doing so, we also honor our capacity to choose our experience of life from moment to moment.

Remaining calm and backing away doesn’t always come easy, heeding the warning signs and backing away before any venom is released in the form of unkind words, may just be the key to freeing ourselves to enjoy the myriad of people who make their way into your life.

Here’s to your greatness,

Misti Burmeister


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