How to Deal with Difficult People During a Crisis

…Or at any time

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Times are tough. Tensions are high. In the past month, we’ve been sequestered in our homes with our spouses, children, roommates, or completely alone. Other than walking the dog 18 times a day, we don’t have much of an outlet. Gyms are closed. We can’t go to the beach, parks, restaurants, bars, or even get our hair and nails done. We are beginning to suffer from cabin fever in the worst way.

While I’ve seen the best in people during this time, people who have shown exceptional generosity and compassion, I’ve also seen the worst in people- behavior so vile it would make Roseanne Barr look like an angel wearing a Mr. Rogers mask.

I’ve been the target of repugnant prose lately that I can only assume is the result of COVID rage. Some guy called me a “racist” and a “retard” simply because I didn’t like his condescending and insensitive comment to a friend whose mom just passed away 3 weeks ago. Meanwhile, her brother tested positive for coronavirus and is currently in ICU.

Another friend posted a note on Easter praising a federal judge who overruled Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer’s decision to ban all services, including drive-in church. One follower’s response: “Every one who attends these services should be fined 1000 bucks and the pastors need to be dragged out into the street and shot in the head.”

WHOA! And this is just on social media. There has also been a great deal of concern over the potential increase in domestic violence during this time.

What is this world coming to? I know we are feeling stonewalled, concerned, fearful, uncertain, and confused. We aren’t sleeping well. Our routines are off. Many have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. Parents are now teachers home schooling their kids. Everyone is on edge, but is that any reason to communicate with or treat your fellow man or woman in such a revolting manner?

When dealing with someone who’s being completely irrational, unreasonable, or just being a complete asshole, our fear response kicks in. It starts in the fight, flight, or freeze part of our brains called the amygdala. It responds by sending signals to the hypothalamus, which stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It can’t discern whether you’re being verbally assaulted by an angry customer or some jerk on social media; followed in a dark parking lot, or confronted with a viscous dog. It’s up to you to enlist your conscious mind to determine and defuse the situation.

How do you respond when you are on the receiving end of such contemptible commentary online or in person?

I’ve been looking into a concept called ‘verbal de-escalation’. It includes tactics used by professional crisis intervention teams to help defuse a contemptuous situation. You can use them on anyone, but the better you know someone, the more you will know what will work or not.

  1. Listen. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. You won’t get anywhere with the offending party until they feel acknowledged. Try to stay focused on what the other person is saying and not what you want to say. This will require you to let go of your ego and the need to be “right”.
  2. Don’t argue. Don’t try to convince the other person of anything. It will be a fruitless endeavor that you can’t win. Again, this requires letting go of the ego for the sake of your well-being.
  3. Remain calm. It’s easy to get all riled up when someone has offended or insulted you. I get it. When the jerk face guy was calling me a ‘retard”, it took everything I had to not launch a vile verbal assault in return. That would have done nothing but fuel the fire. Instead, I dug deep into my southern roots, said “bless your heart” and laughed it all off. If you are confronted with your own personal jerk face guy or gal in person, remember to monitor your breathing. Take a few slow, deep breaths and try to think of something pleasant or neutral like blue glass or butterflies. If its a virtual assault, just step away from the computer, or put down the phone. You don’t have to engage. Just breathe.
  4. Don’t respond to anger with anger. Doing things like raising your voice, pointing a finger, blaming, or patronizing will only exacerbate the situation. Instead, use a calm, monotone voice and neutral body language. Chose your words very carefully, or choose no words at all.
  5. Use calming phrases. These are generally questions that show the person you are concerned and interested in their problem, which helps lower their intensity. Questions like: “What do you need right now?” or “What’s your biggest concern?” Obviously, the guy who wants to drag pastors out into the street and shoot them in the head is concerned about spreading the virus. With someone like that, it’s probably best to just walk away. Also, simply saying “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to offend you” can go a long way.
  6. Look for the hidden need. What is the person trying to achieve, gain, or avoid? Maybe they’re just trying to blow of steam. Maybe it’s their own out-of-whack ego and insecurity they’re trying to satisfy. Maybe they are just as afraid as you are and they don’t know how to express themselves in a more appropriate manner. Or, maybe they need an immediate solution to a problem.
  7. Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done, I know. Sure, it was tough to not take being called a “retard” and “racist” personally. I know for a fact that I’m neither. I had to realize that this verbal attack wasn’t necessarily about me. Who knows what was going on in that guy’s life at that moment. It doesn’t give him an excuse for such appalling behavior, but it definitely came from somewhere that had nothing to do with me. Getting defensive when someone is so emotionally revved up isn’t going to help. Just let it go.
  8. Release your own stress. You are likely stressed out during this time too. If you’ve had to put your own anger and frustrations aside to deal with people who are a lot less rational and level-headed as you, then you need to release that emotion in a healthy way. Go for a run or a hike. Take the dog for a walk. Do a 15–20 minute guided meditation. Don’t let the negative thoughts and emotions stay stuck in your mind and body.
  9. Finally, give yourself some credit and grace for getting through a difficult situation with calm and dignity. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to deal with assholes. This is the most important step so best not to skip it.

Coronavirus or not, you’re still going to have to deal with difficult people in life. But, dealing with them in a calm, rational manner will lessen the blow and help you maintain your own sense of sanity.

Stay safe and well.


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