Shelly Hickman

Ramblings and Whatnot

How Do We Deal with Difficult People?

How do we deal with a difficult personality? Specifically, a passive aggressive personality? You know the type—the one who comes off as friendly and easy-going, while simultaneously saying things or acting in ways which are hurtful or make you feel inferior.

Normally, I just do my best to steer clear of this type of person, but unfortunately, due to circumstances I can’t completely do that in this case.

I’m going to keep this as vague as possible, on the off-chance this person—who I’ll call Apple—ever reads this.

What makes this situation especially hard for me to take is that the target of Apple’s aggression is one of my children. In an effort to keep this post as vague as possible to protect all identities, I’m going to refer to my child as Banana. Are you following so far?

Apple is the parent of one of Banana’s very close friends—I’ll call this person Carrot. (I apologize in advance for the repeated fruit/vegetable names in place of pronouns. Just my paranoia kicking in, and I’ve asked Bridget to do the same in her response.)  

I have been in Apple’s company on several occasions and have always been very friendly and agreeable with Apple. However, over the past couple of years, Banana has told me several unkind remarks that Apple has said to Carrot about Banana. I have no idea why Carrot would feel the need to tell Banana these things, except for the fact that Carrot really doesn’t get along with Apple either, and has also been the subject of Apple’s unkind words. Maybe Carrot just wants to form an alliance with Banana against Apple. I don’t know.

All along I have tried not to let much of this drama get to me. However, you can only hear bad things being said about your child for so long before you’ve had enough. Yes, yes… I realize I haven’t heard these things first-hand, and that young people can often twist or exaggerate things, but I have been around Apple enough times to witness this passive aggressive personality and believe it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination.

So after this last piece of nastiness Apple supposedly said about Banana, I just lost it. I really don’t know what to do because all of these things are being said behind Banana’s back, and I don’t even know how true they are. But at the same time, if they really are being said, I want nothing more to do with Apple. I can’t continue being friendly with someone who repeatedly talks smack about my kid.

As I said at the beginning of this post, normally I would just write such a person off. But Banana and Carrot’s close friendship makes this almost impossible, and I don’t want to behave in a way that makes things harder for them.

So… I reached out to my friend and communications guru, Bridget Sampson, for some feedback and advice. Bridget knows all of the details and specifics that unfortunately I’m not able to provide here, and I asked her if she would be willing to share some insights about difficult personalities that might help me, as well as others who may be in a similar situation. You’ll find after reading them, they make perfect sense after removing emotion from the situation, which is always the hardest part!

Bridget also has an upcoming book–Communication Secrets for Success (working title)—in which she shares her expertise in communicating with the various people in our lives, from our romantic partners to our children to our bosses. I’ve had the pleasure of previewing it, and though not yet finished reading it, have already received some very useful tips and insights from the book. Please be sure to check it out once published!

Thanks for welcoming me to your blog to discuss this challenging issue, Shelly! As a communication professor and consultant, it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to chew on.

I want to start by commending you for your willingness to examine this situation from different perspectives.

I recently binge-watched this great show on Showtime called The Affair. One of the reasons I love it is because the first half of the show presents events from one main character’s perspective and the second half presents the same events from the vantage point of the other main character. It’s fascinating to watch how different the accounts are because it points out that we’re probably all living in our own separate realities.

I share this because I believe, and I’m sure you would agree, that there must be much more going on in this situation than you are aware of. I find this to be true in most cases that involve a person who is considered “difficult.” We could guess at Carrot’s motives for telling Banana the unkind things Apple has said about Banana. But we’d probably be wrong. We could also try to analyze the reasons why Apple might say the things Apple does about Banana, Carrot, and others. But the truth is we don’t really know Apple very well, so again, we would likely be way off base.

Attribution theory tells us that when we try to attribute meaning to others’ choices without really knowing their side of the story, we’re almost always wrong. So I try to steer people away from this kind of stressful speculation. That’s my first tip. Don’t try to figure other people out without hearing directly from them.

Now, for the hardest part of this dilemma… how to deal with your feelings about the hurtful things Apple has (supposedly) said about your beloved child, Banana. I had to add that qualifier to the last sentence, because as you acknowledged, this information has mostly come to you third-hand, which almost always means that it has been distorted in some way. Just play the game telephone to see what I mean. I play it in classes and it’s hysterically funny to see how dramatically a message can change each time it passes from one person to the next.

I happen to have inside information pointing to the fact that Banana is an exceptional human being. Banana has been a very high-achiever in school and is an ethical, kind, and loving individual. I know this. You know this. Everyone who knows Banana knows this, including Apple. We’ll never know why Apple may have made negative comments about Banana. But we can rest assured that they are not true. We also have evidence that Apple makes harsh comments about others on a regular basis, including Apple’s own child, Carrot. This reduces the credibility of Apple’s opinion of others down to almost nothing, in my view. So why fret about it?

We cannot live a life free of interactions and relationships with difficult people. But we can always choose how we respond to them and how much we allow them to affect us. Our time and energy are precious and limited. They should not be wasted on worrying about things people say
that are untrue or may have been exaggerated due to ulterior motives we are not even aware of.

The bottom line: Continue to be pleasant to Apple when you see Apple. When you hear third-hand accounts of things Apple has said about Banana, Carrot, or others, which you know are not true, ignore them and encourage everyone involved to do the same.

I hope that was helpful and I look forward to future conversations about life and relationships! Thanks, Shelly!


Bio: Bridget Sampson is the owner of Sampson Communication Consulting (SCC) and has been a lecturer in the Communication Studies department at California State University, Northridge for over twenty years. SCC is dedicated to developing and facilitating cutting-edge professional development programs for corporations and educational institutions. Their clients include Google, Mattel, and The Los Angeles Alliance for Children’s Rights. Bridget lives in Southern California with her husband, their two sons, two silly dogs, and a variety of other pets.

SCC Website:

CSUN’s Communication Studies Lecturer Page:

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12 responses to “How Do We Deal with Difficult People?”

  1. Meredith Schorr Avatar
    Meredith Schorr

    Great advice, Bridget. I’ve spent way too much time trying to “figure out” the reasons behind the behavior of others and like you said, it’s impossible to know without speaking to them directly and even then, they might not tell the truth. It might seem productive to analyze but it’s really counterproductive. We can’t control the behavior of others;- only how we respond to it.


  2. Bridget Sampson Avatar
    Bridget Sampson

    Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Shelly! Thanks for that feedback too, Meredith. I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure other people out too! It’s kind of freeing when you realize it’s not helpful.


    1. Shelly Hickman Avatar
      Shelly Hickman

      Always my pleasure, Bridget! Thanks for being the voice of reason. 🙂


  3. Great article! It’s so true we can’t avoid all people who we might have a negative interaction with. Hiding from life because some people are difficult means we miss out on so much. I love this part and I shall hold it in my mind as I go through something like this, “Our time and energy are precious and limited. They should not be wasted on worrying about things people say that are untrue or may have been exaggerated due to ulterior motives we are not even aware of.”


    1. Shelly Hickman Avatar
      Shelly Hickman

      I know. Great point, right Melissa? It makes perfect sense, but sometimes we forget in the heat of the moment.


  4. Pauline Wiles Avatar
    Pauline Wiles

    This is wonderful advice, to try to manage our own reactions instead of guessing at what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s hard to do, though. I had a high school friend who once told me something her father had “said” about me. In fact, I wondered if it was actually her own thought which she decided was safer to attribute to him. And no, it wasn’t flattering!
    These days, I’m a little more able to remember the saying that no-one can make me feel inferior without my consent. But only a little more 😉


    1. Shelly Hickman Avatar
      Shelly Hickman

      This is very true, Pauline, when it comes to hearing things said about ourselves, and like you, I’m only a little better at it than I used to be. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult for me to apply when the target is one of my children. Mama Bear comes out. LOL.


  5. Great post. In my last job I dealt with difficult personalities all the time.


  6. Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie Avatar
    Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie

    Great advice, Bridget. Difficult people are a fact of life – but how we deal with them is our choice and in our power. So true!


  7. Sorry to hear you’re having trouble Shelly. I have (today actually) officially stepped down as president of the P&C at my Banana’s school because of “difficult people”, so I completely hear where you’re coming from. Though dealing it yourself is not as bad as when it’s directed at your kid. That’s just not on.
    I know that behind one’s person’s behaviour there’s a lot more going on, but I can’t control or influence that, so I removed myself from the situation. “…we can always choose how we respond to them and how much we allow them to affect us.”
    I hope the situation improves, or that you find a way to tune the ‘difficulty’ out.


    1. Shelly Hickman Avatar
      Shelly Hickman

      Good for you for removing yourself from the situation, Sandie. I wish we could remove our kids from these kind of situations, but after they’re a certain age, only they can do that. Dang it!

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂


  8. Bridget Sampson Avatar
    Bridget Sampson

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments, everyone! I’m so glad our conversation was helpful! 🙂


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About Me

Las Vegas native, Computer Science teacher, and writer (when the mood strikes). Author of five novels – mostly romantic comedies – available on Amazon and Audible.


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