As you go through life, you will encounter difficult people. These interactions can be incredibly frustrating. And you’ll likely find yourself wishing that you could change these people.
You might even try to do it. But if you do, you’ll inevitably find that it’s a waste of time. No matter how badly you want to, you simply cannot control how others behave.
What you can control, however, is your own response to these people. You can choose how you want to perceive them. And you can decide how you want to respond in their presence.
And by doing that, you can learn to tolerate — and even appreciate — the challenging people that cross your path. Here are the Stoic’s best techniques for dealing with difficult people.
1. Reset Your Expectations
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.
— Marcus Aurelius
Imagine that you’re going for a walk on a path in the forest. Suddenly, someone dressed in a bear costume jumps out in front of you. In this situation, you’d probably be scared half to death.
Now imagine taking the exact same hike. Only this time, a friend warns you that someone dressed in a bear costume is hiding along the path and jumping out to scare people.
This time, you know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know when. So, when the person in the bear costume jumps out, you’ll still be startled, but not nearly as much as if you didn’t expect it.
Your expectations deeply influence your emotions. And you can use this to your advantage by anticipating unwanted surprises.
Difficult people will inevitably cross your path. It’s part of life. So, expect it to happen.
Regularly remind yourself that unpleasant people can show up at any time. That way, they won’t startle you as much, and you’ll be better able to deal with them.
2. Remember Our Common Humanity
When it comes to all we’re required to go through, we’re equals. No one is more vulnerable than the next man, and no one can be more sure of his surviving to the morrow.
According to the Stoics, we all share a common bond in our human existence. All of us have to deal with difficult emotions, devastating experiences, and daily stressors.
Sure, we’re different from each other. But in some aspects, we’re all exactly the same. None of us are immune to pain, illness, loss, and death. And it’s a good practice to remember this in our interactions with others. Marcus Aurelius wrote:
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
So, when you engage with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers, treat them with kindness. Remind yourself of our common humanity and that you don’t know what the other person is going through.
Strive to be present and compassionate in your social interactions. That will elevate your relationships and deepen your appreciation for others.
3. Forgive Others for Their Mistakes
[When someone does wrong:] Say to yourself each time, ‘They did what they believed was right.’
If someone mistreats you it’s because, in that moment, they don’t know any better. And since that’s the case, there’s no reason to get agitated. You can think of it this way:
When someone mistreats you, they are doing it either intentionally or unintentionally. If it’s unintentional, it doesn’t make sense to waste energy on their negligence. And if it’s intentional, they have a character flaw, and it’s not your job to fix it.
You cannot control how other people behave. All you can control is how you respond to their behavior. So, practice forgiving people for their negligence and flaws.
And if you ever feel particularly vengeful, remember these wise words from Marcus Aurelius:
The best revenge is to be unlike the one who performed the injustice.
4. Overcome Envy with Reason
[If you envy what you don’t have:] You’ll never be free – free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you.
— Marcus Aurelius
According to the Stoics, we find happiness within ourselves — not in the hands of others. Only you can create your own fulfillment. So, envying the successes and possessions of others is misguided and pointless.
In the Stoic view, all the blessings in your life are on loan from Fortune. They must all be returned sooner or later. And that’s the case for everyone around you as well.
So, while some people may seem enviable right now, you have no idea what plans Fortune has in store for them. They could lose everything they have tomorrow. And the more they have, the more they risk losing. As Seneca put it:
Let us not envy those who stand on a higher station: what appeared as heights are cliffs.
Money, fame, and power are fickle and impermanent. What’s more, they’re outside of your control. So, it’s no surprise that the Stoics advised us to focus elsewhere.
Instead of comparing your situation with others, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Continuously strive to become the person you want to be. That way, you’ll cultivate true happiness and fulfillment.
5. Inspire Others Through Action
Stop talking about what the good person is like, and just be one.
— Marcus Aurelius
People are way more affected by your actions than your words. What you do speaks so loudly that they can’t hear what you say. So, if you want to influence others, you should show them rather than tell them. Epictetus offered this metaphor:
Sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.
If you want others to be better, don’t puke your virtues all over them. Instead, digest them — cultivate the virtues yourself — and express them through your conduct.
When you do that, you’ll become an exemplar for others. You’ll inspire those around you to be better, too. And in the process, you’ll make the world a better place.
How to Deal With Difficult People, In Summary
- Reset your expectations. Remind yourself that difficult people will cross your path.
- Remember our common humanity. We all suffer, so treat everyone with kindness.
- Forgive others for their mistakes. Don’t waste energy on other people’s negligence and flaws.
- Overcome envy with reason. Only compare yourself with who you were yesterday.
- Inspire others through action. Don’t tell others how to act — show them!