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4 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

difficult_peopleDr. Judith Orloff

"Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself."
--Saint Francis de Sales

Every day there are plenty of good reasons to be frustrated: another long line, telemarketers, a goal that isn't materializing "fast enough," people who don't do what they're supposed to, rejection, disappointment. How does one deal with it all? You can drive yourself crazy, behave irritably, feel victimized or try to force an outcome -- all self-defeating reactions that alienate others and bring out the worst in others. Alternatively, you can learn to transform your frustration with patience.

As a psychiatrist, I help others see that patience doesn't mean passivity or resignation but power. It's an emotionally freeing practice of waiting, watching and knowing when to act. To many people, when you say, "Have patience," it feels unreasonable and inhibiting, an unfair stalling of goals. In contrast, I'm presenting patience as a form of compassion, a way to regain your center in a world filled with frustration.

In "Emotional Freedom," I discuss how to transform frustration with patience. To tame frustration, begin by evaluating its present role in your life, how much it limits your capacity to be happy. The following quiz will let you know where you are now so that you can grow freer by developing patience.

Frustration Quiz: How Frustrated Am I?

To determine your success at coping with this emotion, ask yourself:

  • Am I often frustrated and irritable?
  • Do I typically respond to frustration by snapping at or blaming others?
  • Do I self-medicate letdowns with junk food, drugs or alcohol?
  • Do my reactions hurt other people's feelings?
  • When the frustration has passed, do I usually feel misunderstood?
  • During a hard day at work, do I tend to lose my cool?
  • When I'm disappointed, do I often feel unworthy or like giving up?

Answering "yes" to five to seven questions indicates an extremely high level of frustration. Three to five "yeses" indicates a high level. Two "yeses" indicates a moderate level. One "yes" indicates a low level. Zero "yeses" suggests that you're dealing successfully with this emotion.

Even if your frustration is off the charts, patience is the cure. In today's world there are plenty of opportunities to cultivate this invaluable skill. Life teaches patience if you let it.

When someone frustrates you, always take a breath first before you react. Decide if you want to talk now or wait to calm down. If you're highly reactive and upset, have the discussion later, when you're calmer; you'll be more persuasive and less threatening. At that time, use this approach:

  1. Focus on a specific issue; don't escalate or mount a personal attack. For instance, say, "I feel frustrated when you promise to do something but there isn't follow-through." Do not resort to threats or insults. In an even, non-blaming tone, lead with how the behavior makes you feel rather than how you think the other person is wrong.
  2. Listen non-defensively without reacting or interrupting. It's a sign of respect to hear a person's point of view, even if you disagree. Avoid an aggressive tone or body language. Try not to squirm with discomfort or judge.
  3. Intuit the feelings behind the words When you can appreciate someone's motivation, it's easier to be patient. Try to sense if this person is frightened, insecure or up against a negative part of themselves that they've never confronted. If so, realize that this can be painful. See what change they're open to.
  4. Respond with clarity and compassion This attitude takes others off the defensive so that they're more comfortable admitting their part in causing frustration. Describe everything in terms of remedies to a specific task rather than generalizing. State your needs. For instance, say, "I'd really appreciate you not shouting at me even if I disappoint you." If the person is willing to try, show how pleased you are. Validate their efforts: "Thanks for not yelling at me. I really value your understanding." See if the behavior improves. If not, you may have to minimize contact and/or expectations.

In communication, patience is a powerful emotional currency. As you're more able to tolerate the discomfort of frustration and not blow it by acting out, your relationships will function on a higher level. In any interchange, always define what you're after. Is it to resolve a specific frustrating behavior? To say "no" to participating in a dead-end pattern? Or is it to simply convey your feelings without expectation of change? Even if the frustration is irresolvable, patience sets the right tone to treat others and yourself respectfully.


Judith Orloff MD is bestselling author of the new book Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Three Rivers Press, 2011) upon which these tips and article are based. Her insights in Emotional Freedom create a new convergence of healing paths for our stressed out world. An assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Dr. Orloff's work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, and in Oprah Magazine and USA Today.

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