Mindfulness and Difficult People

Five yellow, smiley faces are hanging down from little chains. A fifth red face with an angry expression is swinging down to hit them.
This is a topic I thought would make a great introduction to the beginning of December and the holiday season that looms before us, but the information in it is timeless.

I’m using the phrase difficult people as a shorthand term for anyone you find challenging to socialize with because of their behaviour.

Labels are useful but can’t possibly explain every nuance in a relationship. Your relationship with a friend will probably have features that aren’t present with a coworker, romantic partner, in-law, neighbour, or acquaintance. It was my intention to cast a wide, friendly net for this post and try to offer advice that can be used for as many different scenarios as possible.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s talk about how mindfulness can help before, during, and after the moments when you’re spending time with someone who you are not sure how to relate to.

Beforehand

A tree surrounded by perfectly still water at sunset. I’ll admit to being the sort of person who sometimes plays conversations out in my head before they happen.

The problem with this is that no one can predict the future.

That conversation might not ever actually happen. If it does happen, there’s no way to know in advance when it will pop up or if it will end the way you expect.

Spending as much time in the present moment as possible is a great way to avoid borrowing trouble.

One of the biggest benefits of mindfulness I’ve discovered for days like these is that it helps me to prepare for them without making assumptions about how they will go.

All you know for sure is that a certain event is on the horizon and that specific people are probably going to be there. Start with that.

During

Slow Down

There is something beautiful about intentionally moving slowly through these sorts of interactions.

Not every question or remark deserves an answer. If it does need to be answered, that could happen five minutes, or a week, or a month from now after you’ve had time to think it over.

Observe

I like looking at designs on silverware or counting lightbulbs in a room. There is always something to pay attention to that you might have otherwise ignored.

Reading body language is also a fascinating thing to do. You can learn so much about someone by quietly watching their posture, facial expressions, and gestures.

Breathe Deeply 

The beautiful thing about breathing deeply is how it encourages your mind to remain in the moment and what a calming influence it can be.

Focus on every breath as it enters and exits your body. Sometimes I’ll even count them silently in my mind.

Choose Your Words Carefully

It can be so relaxing to sit there and make small talk about the weather or some other innocuous subject when a tricky topic comes up.

There’s also the option of saying nothing at all. Silence is truly golden sometimes. As I mentioned earlier, not everything requires a response now or ever.

A well-placed dose of silence can give you a moment to think of how you want your words to come out before you say them.

This is a technique I’ve found especially helpful for people who have the urge to swoop in and fix the lives of those around them regardless of whether or not you actually wanted those things to be fixed. If they don’t know you adopted a new dog from the local animal shelter, chances are very good they’ll never tell you all of the things you’re doing wrong with that pet or why the breed you chose is the worst one ever.

Afterwards

Be honest with yourself. 

How did it go? What parts of this gathering did you enjoy? Which ones were not so helpful?

Release

I know it’s tempting, but mentally going over what anyone said or did at tricky events like these probably won’t be helpful.

As Elsa sang, let it go. Find something to take your mind off of what just happened. Taking a long, brisk walk through the park is a nice distraction for me when the weather is nice. Sometimes I even use that  trick on stormy days! It’s hard to ruminate when you’re also trying to avoid slipping on a patch of ice or stepping into a large puddle.

Think Longterm. 

The strategies I mentioned today have been helpful for me in the short term, but it’s also important to think about what you want your life to look like months, years, or decades from now in my opinion.

I believe in meeting people where they’re at and being understanding, compassionate, and supportive when they’re going through a difficult time.

Smartie Painted to look like a smilie faceBut I also believe in natural consequences and in putting emotional energy into relationships that are healthy and reciprocal. The only person I can control is myself, so there have been times in my life when I’ve reduced or  eliminated the time I spent with someone based on their behaviours and current level of introspection.

There’s a huge difference between using mindfulness to get through a difficult conversation that must happen and repeatedly agreeing to spend time with someone who chooses to be unkind… or worse.

It’s not my place to tell anyone how to arrange their lives, but I think there’s something to be said for finding both short-term and long-term strategies for dealing with these things.

4 Responses to Mindfulness and Difficult People

  1. Oh man, I borrow trouble by dreaming up all the possible scenarios to family gatherings all. the. time. It never goes the way I plan for, though, and that’s something I’ve been trying to stop doing… but it’s hard. Thanks for the reminder!

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