Top 10 tips for dealing with difficult/toxic people


Have you ever encountered someone that when they leave the conversation you feel spent, energy drained, and often a bit frustrated?  They are generally kind people, with good intentions, but present themselves in a manner that defies normal interactions.  They often cross invisible boundaries of taste, expectation, or wisdom.  Often these folks bring us down  – the “Debbie Downer” offering only negative gloom and doom, or the harsh critic that have nothing good to say about life, themselves, or you.  then there is “Tim the Time Waster”.  The time waster really just wants to consume your time with thoughts and discussion that is overwhelming.  There are so many more personalities out there that leave us wondering what just happened.  We all have run into folks that meet these descriptions, right?  Defined as toxic, people who can be negative, discouraging, draining, or bring far too much information and stress to the conversation and derail us, right.  So how do you deal with that toxic person?  Do you have a plan for dealing with them? I have been investigating this all my life.  I love people, but in midlife I have come to see the wisdom of having the tools to deal with people that are challenging.  Here are 10 tips for working through dealing with difficult and challenging people:

  1. Set Great Limits –  Negative people seem to wallow in their problems and don’t seem to look for a way out of their funk.  They may even be trying to build consensus and draw us into their funk.  And most of us are kind enough to feel compelled to listen.  But it is in that listening that we are pulled into the swirl of emotions and dysfunction.   I don’t want to sound heartless- because I do care, but like everything in life caring may mean more than just letting them talk and talk and talk, caught in an endless loop. The answer is to set a limit, and move away from the person if you must.  One of the best ways i have heard to set limits is to ask the person how they believe they will fix their problem.  The hope is this will jog their thoughts into something fruitful and positive.  The reality might be they will just leave because their goal of drawing you in is not achieved.
  2. Higher Ground –  At the heart of toxic people is their behavior, which is often nonsensical, or irrational.  Naturally we want to understand, reason and have a logical explanation of life.  They tug at our emotions, pull us into crazy places.  But we don’t have to go there with them.  Instead consider the interaction as a project, and respond only to the facts, not the swirl of words, and emotions.  Facts cut through that big old fog.  This is the higher ground, because you are not allowing their behavior or words to draw you to their world
  3. Pick your battles – One of the best pieces of wisdom I have received is that we have to make choices of who we give our energy to.  Toxic people will quickly draw you into their battles and drain you.  Ask yourself if their concern is valid, factual, and worth your time.  (Yes, there will be times when the fight is worth it, but sometimes the answer is no. )  Assess the concern, look for the facts, and choose wisely if you need to engage this.  At the heart of the discussion is this question- are they talking to seek guidance and direction with the intention to move forward or are they stuck, not wanting to change?
  4. Set good boundaries – Boundaries are simply a guide for how engaged or how far you will allow others to consume your life.  They are like fences, set to establish my property vs yours.  (Ok, in the back of my head is that old saying “fences make good neighbors.”). Boundaries are established based on predictable behavior.  Take stock and make decisions about what you will tolerate, and what you will not, and do that long before you need to implement your plan.
  5. Focus is on the solution, not the problem – Entrepreneurs exist because they see potential in the problem, create whole businesses over the solutions they uncover.  It’s all about understanding that problems are fortuitous, and if we are willing to look deeper there might be transformational ideas hiding there.
  6. Never let anyone steal your joy, or your dream – People will say just about anything.  It is fascinating that most people are kind and understanding, but then some people are just jealous, others are mean.  We have all heard those comments that cast negativity all over our creativity, or could easily discourage the strongest of us.  My art business comes from the depth of my soul… it is a dream that is being fulfilled, growing in intensity, and being validated by the growing customer base.  As you know our business was born out of that soul crushing season when my life’s career ended with a merciless layoff and the biggest challenge of searching for work as a masters degreed middle age woman- too old, too educated, and a bit out of shape.  I will admit I was on the edge of antidepressants for a time.  It’s odd how we tie our value with our work. When it’s good, we are valued.  When it goes south… it’s really challenging.  But it comes back to our self talk, and a willingness to dust ourself off and be willing to rise up, try again.  Your dream needs to be bullet proof, letting nobody discourage you or disrespect your work.  And so does our thought life.  Bulletproof- know who you are, know what you are and refuse to hear anything else.
  7. Control your emotions – Toxic people have an incredible capacity for pushing our buttons.  Yes, that is true.  But are you aware of your emotions?  Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.  Deep breath, step away, think it out, and remember who and what you are.
  8. Limit your caffeine intake – Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re surprised in the hallway by an angry coworker.
  9. Get proper sleep – One of the major factors affecting how we perceive and interact with others is the level of sleep we have obtained.  I can tell you that when i am sleep deprived toxic people seem to be magnified.  I wrote about an tool for assessing our condition recently.  The HALT plan (Am i hungry, angry, lonely or tired?) asks us to assess our current physical and emotional state to determine when to not take action.  If any of the HALT conditions exist do nothing.  Sleep is needed, and the lack of sleep has been known to have medical, psychological and emotional damage.   Get a good night;s sleep, or sleep on it before making a big decision.
  10. Draw on your support system – One of the best parts of being in the community of artists is that strong sense of support, mentoring, honesty.  And I must say that the team I work with in my day job are a breath of fresh air.  When your logic fails on how to deal with a difficult or toxic person then draw on your peers.  Finding out how they have handled a difficult or toxic person is insightful, and they may have tools to help you cope.

I have been reading again – and in fact I am just finishing a book on wise boundary setting.  At the heart of these relationships is analyzing their behavior, and building boundaries that will keep the craziness at a distance.  I was thinking of those encounters in my life that were / are challenging.  Toxic people are everywhere, and willingly with try to steal our joy, rob us of our dream, or just draw us into the chaos of their own thoughts.  Taking care of yourself by avoiding lots of caffeine, and getting adequate sleep are helpful.  Setting boundaries, picking your battles and assessing your own emotions are a great set of plans.

I hope this helps a bit.  I have often thought i can write a book based on the toxic encounters in my life.  But the better choice is to get healthy, and take the higher ground in the life , set better parameters, and that includes how I think about the encounters….  join me!