Social Minefield: How To Deal With People You HateS

The number one question we get at Social Minefield is "how do I deal with my friend's horrible boyfriend?" Today we offer tips on coping with him — and all the other people you hate in life.

One of the simplest ways to deal with people you can't stand is just to avoid them. But unfortunately, that's not always possible. Whether it's your combative brother-in-law, your sister's whiny partner, or a coworker who flies off the handle, you'll probably have to interact at some point with someone who pisses you off. Luckily, there are a few strategies that can keep you sane and maybe even lessen the hate. Here's how those play out in a variety of situations.


A friend's partner

First of all, it needs to be said: if you believe your friend's partner is abusive (and here are some symptoms of abuse), then this is no longer a matter of simple dislike. Your role should be to voice support and concern and potentially help your friend find domestic abuse counseling (I addressed this issue here, Megan Carpentier has done so at The Gloss). This goes for all the situations below — if asshole behavior crosses the line into abuse, it's time to seek professional help and, if possible, for victims to cut off contact with the abusive person. And it's not your responsibility to try to change the way that person behaves.

But most of the questions I get about crappy significant others are about obnoxion, not abuse. The sheer ubiquity of the friend's-bad-boyfriend question has led me to wonder whether there's some kind of shitty-relationship epidemic among the friends of Jezebel readers. It's also possible, though, that many people are just extra-judgmental where our friends' significant others are concerned. We love our friends, sometimes to the point of taking their sides in arguments even when they're really at fault. We also know them in the context of our friendship, whereas their relationship is a whole different context. If their partners seem boring, unfunny, or annoying, they may just speak to a side of our friends that we don't usually see — but that doesn't mean this side isn't important. Remembering that our friends contain multitudes can sometimes quell those "s/he's not good enough for her" thoughts — which often aren't particularly useful.

But acknowledging that your friend loves someone doesn't mean you have to love the person, and making time for the friendship is important too. Julie Klausner, whose book I Don't Care About Your Band shows she has ample experience with jerks, told me, "You've got to make sure your friend makes time to hang out with you solo. Even if you love her partner, you can't maintain a quality friendship — which was initially based on a party of two — if Senor Third Wheel-o is always around, whether or not he's getting on your tits." She also notes that an SO you really can't get behind may mean a cooling-off period for the friendship:

[I]f the partner is making you question your friend's judgment to that "I don't even know who you are anymore" level, you might need to reconcile the obnoxious one in your head as a friendship break-up deus ex machina—basically, acknowledge, however glumly, that the jerk will be the thing that will eventually make you and your friend grow apart, at least for now. And if your friendship is meant to be, just as they say in romance, the dick will hit the highway and your pal will be like "let's be friends again!" eventually, and ideally, continue with some award-winning shit talk about what a goober that guy was and how she should have known better. But don't fight that process.


A coworker

Difficult coworkers can be really hard to deal with — you may be forced to interact with them, and it's work, so you pretty much have to be polite. But you don't have to seethe with silent resentment if a coworker is pissing you off — if you know what to do, you can actually make the situation better. I talked to Dr. Rick Brinkman, author of Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How To Bring Out The Best In People At Their Worst, who says "changing your behavior" can help you deal with difficult people — "if you do something different, chances are they'll do something different." But how you change depends on what they're doing to make you mad.

Brinkman walked me through what to do if a coworker's being outright aggressive, bullying, or angry. He says, "you have to be assertive" — however, "you don't want to be as aggressive as they are." Instead, let your coworker vent for a minute or less — any longer than that and she'll feel the situation isn't moving forward, and get more mad. Then "you butt in, you say their name a couple times, and then you backtrack" by giving "two sentences of greatest hits." This lets the coworker know you're paying attention. Brinkman advocates going through this process three times to let the person really feel listened to — and then laying down "the bottom line," a statement or question that's "direct, it's to-the-point, it's blunt." His example: "I'm in the middle of a conversation right now, and I'm not willing to talk to you if this is how you're going to talk to me."

But it doesn't end there — you can then take the lead in the situation while establishing common ground. Brinkman offers another example: "In order to solve your problem fast, I'll need to ask you a few questions. It'll only take a minute. Do you mind?" Giving the person the option to decide whether to move forward helps establish "common purpose" — and the person will be more likely to want to help you. So you can solve her problem — whatever she's mad about — and yours — having someone yelling in your face — by taking charge of the situation with a few pretty simple steps.

Brinkman has tips for other kinds of obnoxious behavior as well (some are available here, with registration), but one thing that struck me about our chat was how much depends on being able to stay calm and take charge. Someone who's being a jerk can make you feel helpless, but you can actually take control of the situation, without being a jerk about it. For instance ...

A student

My friend Frank has a lot of teaching experience, and he's also extremely good at getting along with people. When I asked him what his secret was, he said, "one strategy that I use is to exert calm control over the conversation." He explained,

If students are whispering to each other instead of paying attention, I might say, "Deborah, do you have a question?" Once I was substitute teaching for a class, and I must have asked that question 50 times. But by the end, the students did see it as kind of funny, including Deborah, and she eventually stopped whispering and started paying attention. I wasn't really mean or nasty about it either — I would just ask honestly if she had a question.

Frank cautioned that, "the moment you get mad at them, they can feel it, and it makes them less motivated to comply with how you want them to act." But how to keep from getting mad if someone's being obnoxious — especially while you're trying to do something hard, like teach a class? Frank says, "I think what works best for me is to live by the assumption that everyone is doing the best that they can at all times. It means that when someone is behaving 'badly,' I am much more likely to feel sorry for them than to feel angry with them."

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is kind of a cheesy old piece of advice — but it can keep you from getting pissed off long enough to actually solve the problem at hand. When I used to teach, it helped me to remember how I and my friends were in high school. It was incredibly important for us to establish who we were, and to prove that we were awesome, interesting people worth getting to know, and we did that almost exclusively by talking to our peers. So when we talked during class or made stupid jokes, it wasn't because we hated our teachers or were evil, it was because we were all engaged in a constant project of identity formation that was frequently at odds with the project of learning — a project we could care about too, if our teachers reminded us enough. Later, when my students were texting each other instead of listening to me talk about Frankenstein, I could understand what made them do it, and this prevented me from getting resentful. They, in turn, could tell I wasn't resentful, and this made them way more likely to pay attention to me and do what I wanted. In essence, as long as I was able to avoid getting mad, they saw that we had "common purpose" — we were on the same side.

A family member

Brinkman's strategies for dealing with a bullying coworker will work with a family member too — but it's hard to change your behavior if it's been entrenched for years. And in families, the conflicts can go back to the womb — or before. For dealing with these, Klausner recommends a measure of acceptance, and humor: "Just expect it and go into there loaded to the nines on Klonopin if you've got some, white wine if you don't. Then laugh at everything." She also points out that a lot of family conflicts aren't even about what's going on in the present: "Remember that your agitation is all about going 'back in time,' to quote the scholar Huey Lewis. Your misery comes from your inevitable regression and resentment-harnessing that comes along with that process — and less about what's happening around you." You may not be able to quell your sister's lingering rage over how you always got the front seat growing up, but at least you can recognize that when she criticizes your driving, that's what it's really about. And understanding this may make you less bothered by familial criticism or fight-picking — a lot of it is just a rehash of age-old arguments that are never going to be won anyway, so you don't need to try.

A classmate

For advice on dealing with hateable classmates, I turned to Hannah Friedman, whose memoir Everything Sucks describes a lot of them. First, she echoes the in-her-shoes advice: "Remember that they're acting the way they do for a reason. If they're being super cliquey it's probably because they don't feel comfortable with themselves outside of the confines of a clique." Beyond empathy, though, the best way to deal with jerky classmates is not to care too much. Says Friedman,

Be yourself, be fiercely yourself, and you're already getting one over on those people. They might tease you for it, but in the end the best revenge is living well. Secondly, don't stoop to mean games that classmates can play. It's so easy to get tempted into the gossiping, backstabbing, nasty little games, and no matter how satisfying they seem at the time, any moment you spend wishing ill of another person is a moment you're not using to find your own bliss, to live your dreams, to make the world a better place than you found it. And those are the things that will truly make your life richer and more fulfilling in the long run, not making some bitchy girl cry. Thirdly, don't give a shit what people think about you. This is probably the hardest one to remember, and it's a constant learning process, but you're here in this life with a unique story and a unique set of skills and a unique viewpoint, and you owe it to yourself to find a beautifully unique path. That means doing your own thing even if it's not considered cool just yet ... you might just have the last laugh.

So there you have it: stay calm, try to see the other side, take charge in a non-asshole fashion — and if all else fails, act like you don't care. Often enough, it'll actually come true.


Need help with a sticky social situation? Email us! We'll sweep your social minefield!

For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out The Best In People At Their Worst
I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, And Other Guys I've Dated
Everything Sucks: Losing My Mind And Finding Myself In A High School Quest For Cool
Dr. Rick Brinkman, Conscious Communication [Official Site]

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