Remember the old National Enquirer magazine commercials? “Inquiring minds want to know. I want to know.”
I talk about the health benefits of giving and how awkward situations can be smoothed out with kindness, but the more opportunities I have to speak in public and get immediate feedback from those messages, the more I realize I’m getting it wrong.
Well, maybe not totally wrong. It’s just that I’ve been missing a key element in the equation. There are inquiring minds out there and they all want to know the same thing. “How do I deal with difficult people?”
Every post-presentation Q & A session contains at least one question about a nagging boss, a meddling mother-in-law or a friend who is never satisfied with the situation.
The scenario is different each time, but every single person in the audience leans in a little closer to hear the answer, because they’re dealing with difficult people too.
I gotta say, if I had a go-to, no fail, do this sort of answer, I would be on a world tour right now with a best-selling book. Difficult people are hard to pin down because they’re … well, difficult.
I do have some thoughts though, based on what’s worked and hasn’t worked in my own life.
I think first we need to determine, what is a difficult person? Oh wait, you already know that. We all do. It’s the person who makes us hesitate when we see their name come across our cell phone. Or groan when we turn into the wrong aisle at the supermarket. Or fidget with self-consciousness when we walk into a room.
Now you’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I think it’s important that we ask ourselves some serious questions. Is she the difficult one or am I? Does everyone think he’s difficult or is it just me? Could this possibly be an issue with my outlook? Perhaps something rooted in jealousy, pride or ego?
When the issue is us and not them, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with ourselves. I’ve had to have some stern talks with myself about being happy for other people’s successes and not jealous of them. Ouch.
Okay, let’s say the other person truly is difficult and everyone knows it. What do we do then?
I find myself using the three Cs: compassion, control and closure.
Compassion. Building compassion for someone can change your entire relationship. Don’t believe me? My mother and I had a very tumultuous rapport for a long time. (Sorry, Mom.)
I couldn’t seem to get over the feelings of abandonment left from my parents’ divorce, and I blamed her. It wasn’t until I started digging into my mother’s past that I realized people make the decisions they make for a reason. Sometimes survival mode kicks in.
What have those tough people in your life been through? What happened to make them that way? What is it they need above anything else? You will find it much easier to greet them with kindness if you can get an idea of their backstory.
The next C is Control. Regain control of the situation by building healthy boundaries into your life. Tired, stressed, anxious? Then let the phone go to voicemail.
Certain you will come to regret taking your neighbor’s children for the afternoon? Then be bold enough to stand up for yourself and say, “That’s not going to work for me. Hopefully I can help you another time.” Be kind to yourself first.
The final C is Closure. This is a sad one. Sometimes we have to break bridges. If a person is so difficult that they are harming your mental or physical or emotional health, you need to cut them off. It will be painful to say goodbye for a season (or forever), but it will allow you to be healthy enough to nurture the relationships in your life that produce good fruit.
I have to admit, the less difficult I become, the less difficult others seem to become. Perhaps it’s because we don’t gravitate toward each other anymore. If I’m not gossiping or griping, they have to find a new partner to commiserate with. Or perhaps I see them differently because I’m seeing them through the lens of compassion.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of days when I have to let the phone go to voicemail, but by the time I get around to returning the call, I know I can do it with kindness.
Please continue to share your stories of kindness with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to Kindness is Contagious c/o Nicole J. Phillips, The Forum, 101 5th St. N., Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107.
Nicole J. Phillips is a former television anchor for Fox News in Fargo. She is a writer, speaker and mother of three kids. Nicole is married to Ohio University’s men’s head basketball coach Saul Phillips. Her column runs every Saturday. You can visit Nicole at nicolejphillips.com.