You can’t choose your family, which means you
might be saddled with difficult family members
whom you have no choice but to deal with. If so,
you’ll want to know how to interact with them
and not drive yourself crazy in the process. Deal
with your difficult relatives by staying calm and
being assertive. Then, follow strategies to make
interactions with them more pleasant. Also, it can
help to distance yourself from them when it’s
necessary to save your sanity.
Difficult people are everywhere, like it or not. It’s
pretty certain that at some point in your life, you’ll
come across a challenging person and will have to
find a way to deal with them. It would be easy to
think, “Why bother?” if being around them causes
you grief. But it’s not as easy as that. Sometimes
we’re just forced into situations we have little
Being related is one such circumstance. In fact,
family members are often the hardest to deal with,
because they’re connected to us in a more
complicated, intimate way. With difficult
acquaintances like friends, colleagues, lovers, or
neighbors, you may have to deal with them for a
time, either until a conflict between you is resolved,
or you are able to remove yourself from the
situation. With family, we are almost obligated to
go the extra mile for the sake of the integrity of the
family group. In other words, personal relationships
may affect the family as a whole. If you don’t get
along with a family member, it may very well put
stress and strain on other familial relationships as
So what do you do with those people you may not
like very much and may not choose to have in your
life, but are forced to deal with because they’re
1. Don’t try to fix the difficult person.
Accept them exactly as they are. (This applies to all
difficult people, not just family.) It’s tempting to try
to help someone you want to care about; you
probably will make some efforts to help them.
Sometimes it works, but often your efforts will not
be rewarded. In fact, trying to fix someone or make
their life better may become a huge headache,
since the more you do for them, the more they want
from you. Accept that they are unable to change, at
least at this point in time. Unless you see real
change — proof that this person is making an
effort to listen and meet you halfway — you can
assume that their behavior is what it has always
been. It’s important to temper your expectations
about what others can and want to do.
2. Be present and direct.
Know that a person who is trying to stir up conflict
can easily set you off emotionally, and even
physically, possibly raising your heart rate and
blood pressure. Try to avoid getting into a fight-or-
flight response, which inevitably leads to becoming
defensive. You do not want an argument or heated
discussion. Stay true to yourself, grounded in your
own integrity. Be direct and assertive when you
express yourself. Stay focused on how you respond.
Know when the discussion or argument has
accelerated to the point of no return — meaning it’s
no longer about conflict resolution, but just about
winning. If it gets to this point, stop the interaction,
and leave the conversation.
3. Do encourage difficult people to express themselves.
Let them fully state their point of view about the
issue/conflict/problem without interruption. Why do
they feel judged or criticized by others? What do
they feel people misunderstand about them? What
do they want or expect from others? The idea is to
remain as neutral as possible. Just listening, rather
than trying to engage, may be enough to allow
someone to feel like they have the opportunity to
say what’s on their mind. Showing respect for
another’s differences may go a very long way.
4. Watch for trigger topics.
Inevitably there will be topics that represent points
of disagreement and disharmony. Know what these
topics are, and be extremely aware when these are
brought up. Your past experiences should help you,
especially when you are confronted with these
delicate subjects. Be prepared to address these
issues in a direct, non-confrontational way or to
deflect the conflict if the atmosphere becomes too
5. Know that some topics are absolutely off-limits.
Period. History and experiences should tell you that
these subjects should be avoided at all costs.
That’s not to say that important issues should be
permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience
dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out
or emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not
progressed sufficiently along to represent a
rapprochement, then it’s best to avoid the
discussion until a time when both parties are willing
to move it forward in a constructive way.
6. It’s not about you — usually.
Yes, it’s hard not to take things personally,
especially when you’re attacked or made to feel
responsible for someone else. But if you look at the
anatomy of a conflict, you can see how these often
play out. Notice how people progressively move
through a discussion or argument. Usually, it initially
centers around a specific topic/disagreement/
response that made a person upset. If allowed to
continue, the argument can become heated,
accelerating quickly to personal attacks (which
often includes trying to make you feel responsible
or guilty for not responding the way someone wants
you to). If you have been through this kind of
interaction before, make a concerted effort to
imagine it unfolding before it actually does — and
then nip it in the bud.
7. Your own well-being comes first.
While you want to be respectful and attentive to
others as much as you can, you don’t want to bend
over backwards or twist yourself into a knot just to
make someone else happy or satisfied, or to keep
the peace. Never allow any personal interaction or
relationship to infringe upon or challenge your own
well-being. Visualize your boundaries, that
protective territory between you and someone else.
No one is entitled to occupy your space unless you
invite them in.
And then there’s that special situation where
families gather together for a special occasion or
holiday. it’s best to plan ahead so that you have a
good idea about how time will be spent with
relatives. Don’t leave too much unplanned time; you
don’t want to get into a situation where you’re left
alone with a difficult family member with whom you
have an issue or conflict — someone who confronts,
challenges, incites, aggravates, and basically
pushes your buttons. Surround yourself with people
you get along with, supportive people who care
about you, people who are there to enjoy time