Posted by: Christine Donovan | May 28, 2009

The Three “Categories” of Difficult People

Continuing along in our theme that, when dealing with difficult people, “perception is more often than not, reality.”…

Let me ask you:

Have you ever noticed how someone who drives you nuts doesn’t bother your coworker?

Or how your spouse absolutely hates your friend but you absolutely love her/him?

Therefore, would you agree that the word “difficult” means different things to different people?

That tells us something.

It tells us that each of us has “trigger” behaviors that may annoy us but not others.  I’m not a psychologist, but I think that it would be helpful to know WHY certain personalities bother me and not my friend.

Whenever that is the case, it stands to reason that I will look at the “annoying” person differently (than my friend or spouse); If I AM part if the problem, then I have control over the situation.  Then I have choices.  Then I can learn to be more accepting, patient, and realize that not everybody sees the world the same way I do.

Another fascinating point: We seem to attract those very people who drive us crazy.

Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see everyone as a nail.”  That’s very true – the quiet person will attract the overbearing one; the whiner attracts the rescuer; the weakling attracts the bully.  Not always of course, but a lot of the time.

There is a spiritual and valuable life lesson in that.

So, and I know many of you aren’t going to like this… but (as mentioned in previous posts) we have to start first by looking at ourselves and understanding what triggers our “dislike” button…

I’ve learned to separate difficult people into categories of difficult.  It helps to keep things in perspective:

1. Slightly Irritating People – Shame on me if I allow them to bother me; it’s definitely MY problem.
2. Legitimately Annoying People – I have an easy choice here; I just need to lose my need to be “right.”
3. Truly Difficult People – They are in the minority; and I can learn tools and skills to deal with them.

Let’s look at these categories one at a time:

1. Slightly Irritating People (Or, “Stupid Reasons to Be Annoyed”).  These people tend to irritate us in the following ways:

  • Their dress, their hair, their clothes, etc.
    If they like tattoos, or wear 1970s leisure suits, or dye their hair pink, is no concern of mine.

It doesn’t affect ME personally; it’s not in my space or my life.  I need to smile, say to myself “Now that is    a UNIQUE person,” and go about my business.  (Let’s be honest – to criticize people who look funny makes us feel superior).

  • Their bad habits
    Gum smacking; pen clicking; slurping; mumbling, etc, are all tolerable behaviors… well usually.  Ask somebody what you do that’s irritating – I’m sure you’ll hear a few things. (Let’s be honest – to criticize peoples’ bad habits makes us feel superior.)


  • The way they talk.
    Maybe they have a heavy accent (that includes Southern drawlers and New Yorkers), slur their words, talk too fast, say a lot of clichés, use bad grammar, speak loudly, etc. (To criticize how people speak makes us feel superior).

One exception is people who continually interrupt us; then they have crossed over the line, and they would fall into the third category (which I’ll get to in due time).

  • Their life choices.
    People often make choices we never would have made, but it’s generally none of our business.

Maybe you work with a single mom who was artificially inseminated and never had a husband.  It may offend your sensibilities, but she doesn’t need your criticism (especially behind her back). 

Maybe you work with someone who is home schooling their children, “living in sin,” or is gay; whatever they do/are that you disagree with is not your business.  (Go look at my previous article that talks about “assumptions, perceptions and opinions”).

We would have a much less-stressful life if we just allowed people to make their own choices.  That’s why we have a constitution – and the right to free speech.

  • Their religion, political views, other ideas.
    I’m not going to say much about this because it is such a hot button.  My mother always told me to avoid “politics and religion” in polite conversation, and that’s good advice.  We are living in an age in which partisan politics has evolved into hatred at the extremes – just because people have different viewpoints.

Evelyn Beatrice HallEvelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer who wrote under the name Stephen G. Tallentyre, said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

People are entitled to their opinions; if we remembered that, there would be a lot less conflict and hatred in this country.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t debate your close friends or family members (if you don’t resort to name calling), and that doesn’t mean you can’t influence others (topic for another post), but to get into serious conflict with someone who doesn’t share your views, isn’t very wise. 

Such arguments tend to build un-scalable walls and to back people into corners they can’t get out of.  Then pride makes its appearance, and it’s almost impossible to back off or admit we were wrong, when we are in a corner.

So be a grown-up, smile, and politely avoid such heated conversations in the first place.

  • If they are quiet, loud, dry, energetic, slow, negative, braggadocios, what else?

If these personality traits irritate you, then basically your philosophy is, “if they are different from me, they are wrong.”

Well I have news for you – different doesn’t equate to wrong.  It’s just different.  It may look wrong, smell wrong, feel wrong, sound wrong (I guess if it tastes wrong, then it’s probably wrong… ha)

But, we are born with a plethora of temperaments, raised with a multitude of opinions, and taught a myriad of ways to do things.  So we think our ways are right…

…and we get to feel superior all the time!

It opens up a brave new world when we realize there are other ways to do, think, live – and many of them are as “right” as we are.

More tomorrow…


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