Whether it’s a partner, boss, colleague, family member or friend, we all have (or have had) people in our lives whom we find ‘challenging’. Luckily, most of us don’t have to see or be around them every day. However, for some, it’s unavoidable.
One of my specialities as a coach is helping people manage difficult relationships, specifically where ongoing contact cannot be avoided, e.g. manager/colleague, director/director, colleague/colleague, employee/customer.
Often, when clients contact me, there has been a grievance, complaint, or a situation has escalated to such a point that it’s become highly disruptive and, in some cases, toxic. These situations are not just uncomfortable for everyone involved but can be costly in terms of lost performance, time and even sickness/absence.
Not everyone will like you
Here’s the thing, we can’t always get along with everybody; that’s human nature. As lovely as I’m sure you are, not everyone will like you, but you don’t like everybody either! So, learning how to get along with people who rub you up the wrong way or appear to dislike you (or vice versa) is a crucial skill.
Following are my top three tips for managing challenging relationships:
1. It’s not you; it’s them!
Many of us are proficient in taking what others say and do personally; after all, we are all the centre of our own universe. I am guilty of this one; as a recovering people-pleaser, it’s something that I have to pay close attention to when it inevitably crops it.
However, another person’s behaviour is rarely about you (unless you have done something to hurt them deliberately). So when someone attacks you, is mean, cruel or antagonistic toward you, especially without good reason, you likely have triggered something negative within their subconscious, and they are ‘projecting’ deep-rooted fears back onto you. Common examples include insecurity, low self-worth, low self-esteem, not feeling heard, not feeling they are ‘enough’, not feeling important, jealousy/ envy, etc.
Furthermore, if you react badly toward them, there’s a good chance that they have triggered one of those emotions in you. Our behaviours are basically programmes that we have repeated so frequently that they are now automatic and have become part of our ‘personality’. We often aren’t even aware that they are there, let alone where they originate.
Taking a step back and choosing not to take something personally, understanding that the other person has stuff going on that’s absolutely nothing to do with you, can be hugely empowering.
Also, analysing your part in the relationship and understanding what’s triggered your negative response is crucial – it takes two! Both of these things are key to changing the dynamics in a problematic relationship.
If you’ve read my previous articles or have done any work with me, you’ll know I love a good reframe. In other words, looking at a seemingly negative situation and seeking out the positives. Using reframing to understand other people’s motivations (as well as our own) is critical to changing how we feel about them.
When you change how you feel, you inevitably behave differently. Not only that, but when you alter your behaviour towards someone else, they HAVE to adjust theirs in response. They HAVE to; it’s one of those universal laws.
Using great questions is the key to helping move out of learnt helplessness and seeing problematic situations in a different light. Use questions such as:
- What’s happening here?
- What do I know about this person that may explain their actions?
- What might be going on with them that provoked their response? (e.g. jealousy, low self-esteem, insecurity, etc.)
- What is my part in this?
- How do they make me feel?
- What emotions have they triggered in me?
- Where do my emotions originate?
- How can I perceive this situation differently?
- What can I do to remedy and bring calmness to this situation?
Of course, you can’t always truly know what another person is feeling or what triggered them – they are probably not even aware themselves – but you can have a good guess. Once you do this work, your perception will likely shift, allowing you to have more compassion and understanding toward them and yourself.
Once this shift occurs, your approach toward them will inevitably change, and they will automatically alter their behaviour in response. They may not be able to pinpoint what’s exactly what’s different, but their subconscious will perceive the modification and react accordingly. It seems too simple to work, but it does – every time.
Incidentally, you ARE NOT going to tell them what you think is happening! That will undoubtedly make things worse. Instead, simply use your newfound understanding to alter your behaviour to create harmony.
3. Set boundaries
I’ve already written an article on setting boundaries (read it here), so I’m not going to discuss it in detail. Suffice to say that boundaries are critical in any relationship, not just difficult ones.
Setting boundaries can be challenging (especially for people-pleasers as we typically didn’t have them as children); it can feel uncomfortable and even anxiety-inducing. However, they are critical, even more so, within problematic dynamics. Therefore, I suggest giving some thought to the following and how you might put them into practice:
- Emotional boundaries to protect your emotional well-being.
- Time boundaries to protect the use and misuse of your time.
- Mental boundaries to protect your thoughts and value system.
- Physical boundaries to protect your physical space
In summary, taking a step back and analysing both the other person’s behaviour as well as your own will help you to view a situation in a different light. It may be uncomfortable, but taking ownership of your role in what’s happening allows you to take responsibility for what you think, do and say. You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, once you’re aware of the part you’re playing.