Communicate Positively with the Most Challenging Person You Know

UPDATED: April 28, 2014
PUBLISHED: April 28, 2014

Whether it’s your friend, parent, co-worker or spouse, we all have someone in our lives with whom it seems nearly impossible to communicate well. Certain personalities can confound our best efforts to speak positively and have conversations that make us feel satisfied instead of strained. In her upcoming book, The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life, Judith Orloff, M.D., identifies five difficult temperament types and offers ways to communicate with them—without being “baited into yelling matches, playing endless blame games, or hammering a point to death in a disagreement.” Sound familiar? Read on.

The Anger Addicts

Who they are: They use anger to deal with feelings of inadequacy and pain. They feel threatened by everything, which puts them in the fight-or-flight mode—and they choose to fight. Anger addicts deal with conflict by attacking, criticizing, accusing or humiliating. And it’s not always screams and insults. Many anger addicts use the silent treatment as their weapon of choice.

How to talk to them: Resist the fight-or-flight impulse yourself. The more heated your spouse or co-worker gets, the more neutral and relaxed your reaction should be. Take deep breaths or count to 10 before responding to an angry comment or tirade. “Try to let their anger flow right through you,” Orloff suggests. “Visualize yourself as transparent so nothing clings to you.” If you can’t calm down in the moment, table the conversation until you can. Don’t respond to an angry email right away—wait until you can construct a reply that isn’t clouded by defensiveness and anger. Then, when you’re able, acknowledge the person’s position. Try saying something like, “I can see why you feel that way. We both have similar concerns. But I have a different approach to the problem. Please hear me out.”

The Passive-Aggressive People

Who they are: These folks sugarcoat their hostility. They may be just as seething as the anger addict, but they hide their irritation behind exaggerated concern and apologies. Examples: The co-worker who says he loves your idea, but then “forgets” to follow through with his part of it. The mother-in-law who secretly gives your kids treats when you’ve asked her not to. The spouse who makes mean jokes about you but swears he’s only kidding. “Passive-aggressive people operate by stuffing anger, being accommodating and then indirectly sticking it to you,” Orloff says.

How to talk to them: While the mixed messages these types send may confuse you, trust your instincts. If it seems like you’re being slighted, you probably are. Even if the other person is not consciously trying to be dismissive or belittling, you still deserve to be treated with more consideration. If it’s a boss or someone whom you can’t realistically confront, you won’t be able to change the behavior, but at least you’ll know that it’s not you who’s crazy! Ignore the veiled jabs and focus on the rest of their conversational content. If it’s a friend or relative, address the behavior and set limits. Tell the “joker” that his sense of humor upsets you. If it’s a friend who’s always late, Orloff says, tell her calmly and firmly, “I would greatly appreciate it if you can be on time when we go out to dinner. I feel uncomfortable waiting in a restaurant alone.” If the behavior doesn’t change, ask yourself whether it’s something you can live with or whether it’s time to end the relationship.

The Narcissists

Who they are: We can all be self-obsessed sometimes, but true narcissists have an inflated sense of self all the time and an endless need for admiration. They can be charming and seductive but have “cold, unresponsive hearts,” Orloff says. “Narcissists are dangerous because they lack empathy and are incapable of unconditional love,” she writes.

How to talk to them: Because of their lack of empathy, they will never understand—or care—how their words and actions affect you. You cannot change them. Not with compassion, not with confrontation, and not with any amount of complaining. Your communication with a narcissist should be based on self-preservation, Orloff says. Surrender any desire to have an emotionally satisfying relationship with a narcissist and don’t allow your sense of self-worth to be dependent on one. To get what you want from a narcissist, play along and stroke his or her ego. If you want some vacation time, for example, tell your narcissistic boss how it will benefit him if you take time off.

The Guilt Trippers

Who they are: Blamers, martyrs and drama queens, Orloff says. They use guilt to manipulate people and often start sentences with, “If it wasn’t for you… ” or “Why don’t you ever…?” They’ll compare you to others to make you feel bad and will remind you often of all that they do for you. They may make you feel as if you have to forever make up for some mistake that you’ve long since apologized for.

How to talk to them: If you’re feeling truly guilty about something, make amends. Say you’re sorry and vow to try harder next time. But then move on. No one can make you feel guilty unless you already do. If someone continues to bring up a past hurt or makes you feel like you can never do enough, cheerfully say something like, “I understand you feel that way. I’m doing the best I can. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t keep repeating it.”

The Gossips

Who they are: Gossips use other people’s misfortunes—divorces, affairs, weight gains, addictions, etc.—to lift themselves up. We all have an inclination to talk about other people, says Orloff, and gossip can even help us bond with new friends. But it’s toxic when it’s used as ammunition to do harm or creates a distrustful environment.

How to talk to them: Usually, changing the subject when a gossip begins relaying salacious information about other people is enough to stop the behavior. Recognize, too, that most gossip stems from insecurity and jealousy. People who gossip may also just want your attention and not know how else to get it. Give them the affirmation they’re looking for without acknowledging the rumors and hearsay. If a colleague shares a story about another co-worker messing up at a meeting, for example, say, “Oh, that reminds me, I heard you did a great job on your report!”

Communicating positively, and kindly, doesn’t mean “yes”ing people or being a pushover. In fact, Orloff says the word no is one of the most life-saving words in her vocabulary. So if you’re really at a conversational impasse with an anger addict, a guilt tripper or one of the other naysayers, it is your right to end the exchange. Say, “Oh, I have to go now!” or “I have to get back to work—see you later!” and skip away scot-free.