Difficult people are all around us. Perhaps you’ve encountered them in your workplace and you strategically avoid them. Or perhaps they are in your church and you conveniently take cover when you see them coming. Or maybe you’ve encountered a friend who was so difficult to be around that you had to sever the relationship.
We all have our way of dealing with difficult people in our lives and it usually involves some form of avoidance. But what happens when the difficult people in your life are family members and avoidance is not an option?
In my counseling and coaching practice, one of the greatest struggles I see is trying to figure out how to deal with a difficult family member. A part of you loves this person but you just can’t handle the way she treats you. What do you do? Following these dos and don’ts can bring peace and healing into your life—and possibly the relationship.
Don’t get sucked in. Difficult family members often have a dysfunctional and possibly abrasive way of communicating. If you can remain detached from the emotions that are rising up in you, you will be more successful at communicating your feelings. Instead,
Do hear the person out and respond in a calm, mature manner. It may help to take a few deep breaths. This will help to train your brain to think first before speaking.
Don’t fight fire with fire. It’s easy to let things escalate when dealing with a difficult person, but two people behaving badly won’t solve anything. Your losing your temper certainly won’t get the offender to change. On the contrary, it will only encourage him because now you are both participating in the dysfunctional dance. Instead,
Do speak the truth in love. Say what you have to say to this family member but say it in a gentle way that he is more likely to receive. But please remember that it’s not your responsibility for whether or not he receives it. It’s just your responsibility to do the best job you can.
Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of the relationship. The Bible says when possible to live at peace with one another (Romans 12:18).
So, do the best you can to live peacefully but do recognize that a relationship takes two and if the other person is not willing to work with you, it is OK to disconnect for your sake. The Bible also says to guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23), so there’s no justification for staying with an abusive, hostile, manipulative person, regardless of his familial position in your life.
Don’t point fingers. Many difficult family members are difficult because they lack empathy and have inadequate coping and communication skills.
Instead, do focus on how their behavior makes you feel. Avoid statements such as, “You make me…” or “You never….” Instead say, “I feel ___________ when you ____________.” Look to see if the difficult family member will assume responsibility or, at the very least, acknowledge your feelings. If you are met with blame and ridicule, you’ll know you are dealing with a person who has little interest in your wellbeing.
Don’t feel as if you have to explain yourself. Justifying your actions is not necessary. I love the way the Bible says it in Matthew 5:37, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
So instead, do set boundaries and don’t feel guilty about it. If this person loves you, she will respect your boundaries, even if she doesn’t agree.
Learning how to deal with difficult family members takes time. Many make the mistake in thinking that as soon as they employ healthy strategies, the difficult family member will straighten up. This almost never happens. However, your greatest chance at success is found in consistent healthy patterns that force the difficult family member into relating in a healthier manner if they wish to remain in the relationship.
Even if those difficult family members never change, you will have protected yourself and kept your peace.
For more help, grab your copy of Toxic People Survival Guide and learn how to identify and deal with the 5 different types of difficult people.
Your peace is on the way.