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Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at
(847) 498-5611.

How to Cope With Hostile People
by Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

What can be more difficult in your relationships than coping with people who are angry, confrontational, obnoxious, intimidating, aggressive, manipulative, and/or hostile? Who doesn’t encounter difficult, hostile people in some area(s) of their life—within your family, at work, with your lover, and in leisure time activities? For some people, encounters with hostile people leave them feeling naked, vulnerable, and confused about how best to cope with the difficult people in their life.

You know what you feel like after an encounter with a difficult person—provoked, angry, helpless, powerless, frustrated, perhaps even vulnerable. That’s because hostile aggressive people have a sixth sense. They seem to know intuitively what buttons to push to keep you off balance. Although your main interpersonal objective may be to get along, a difficult person’s main objective is to dominate and control in order that they can have their way with you.

Difficult people are difficult for one very good reason. Over time they’ve discovered that by being difficult they can get whatever they want from another person. For them, their disagreeable ways such as aggression and hostility are nothing more than a means to serve their ends. Yet, to you, their aggression is a weapon that wreaks emotional havoc by leaving you feeling hurt, confused, taken advantaged of, perhaps even bullied.

So what’s the answer? Should you feel resigned to accept your fate when you’re subjected to the inappropriate behavior of a difficult person? Should you just grin and bear it? Should you cope by rising above it all? These are all possible ways of adapting but let me offer you another alternative.

First off, let’s see if understanding what lies beneath their bluster and hostility helps you any. By peeling back a layer or two of the protective armor that the difficult person dons in order to protect themselves you may see this person in a different light. Would you even believe me if I were to suggest to you that a hostile, aggressive person, beneath the surface, is much like you and me? All they really want is to be cared about and accepted for who they are. But unlike you and me, they have developed some pretty maladaptive ways of achieving that end.

Having been the victim of their venom and anger, I know it must be hard for you to see a bully as a frightened and insecure person, but that’s exactly what he or she is. In fact, because of their fears and insecurities, they’ve developed some mighty strong habits that serve to protect them. You know the old saying, the best defense is a good offense. Well, the difficult person has mastered every nuance of that saying. For it’s only when they’re on the attack, acting out with aggression and hostility, that they feel safe, powerful, and in control.

Understanding what motivates a difficult person to be difficult is one thing, but what to do about a difficult person when they cross your path is something else. Please keep the following points in mind.

1.) There is nothing that you can do or say that will change a difficult person. These people are the way they are for a reason and no amount of reasoning or kindness will change them.

2.) When confronted with a difficult person, be respectful but firm. Part of what they hope to accomplish is to bait you into fighting with them. Remember, you can choose whether or not you will be sucked into their game. Be respectful. Be firm. But try to maintain some measure of detachment and emotional distance by not taking the bait.

3.) Believe me, this one is easier said than done but do not, no how, no way, personalize what is unfolding between you and a hostile person. Now I know, it’s very difficult not to internalize an emotional assault, to not experience the emotional assault as an attack on your self-esteem, for that is exactly what is happening. Yet, in order to not let a difficult person get the best of you, emotionally detaching from their assault is exactly what you need to do.

Just remember, it’s never easy dealing with a hostile person—not because of your inadequacies but because they make it difficult. To be sucked into their game will guarantee that you will feel like a loser. To remind yourself of what your choices are and act on your choices will minimize how badly you feel after an encounter with a difficult person.

Try the following suggestions and see if they make emotionally detaching a little bit easier for you.

Bridge Builder’s Checklist
1.) Remind yourself who’s problem this really is—the hostile person, not yours.
2.) Remind yourself that you can choose whether or not to let the hostile person dictate to you what is going to be done.
3.) Remind yourself that you can choose whether or not you’re going to take the bait and be sucked into their game.
4.) Remind yourself that you can walk away at any point in the confrontation with a hostile person.



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