How do you deal with difficult people? If you identify with Jim Halpert, then it may involve a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of office pranks. If Dwight Schrute is your spirit animal, then harsher tactics may be your weapon of choice.
The Office may be a comedy, but it touches on the real-life conflicts many of us experience with family members, friends, co-workers, and everyday people we encounter. That’s why Nerdy Therapy has come up with a helpful survival guide for dealing with difficult people (just in time for those awkward holiday gatherings!).
When we’re in a heated argument with another person, the last thing we want to do is think about what we have in common. Instead, we want to highlight all the ways in which we’re different (or better) than the other person. While that may be satisfying in the short-term, it doesn’t lead to meaningful gains in the long-term. When we adopt an “us vs. them” mindset, we tend to become more rigid in our thinking and less equipped to find solutions.
So how do we overcome this barrier? Let’s explore that with The Office!
What do Jim and Dwight have in common? They both work in Dunder Mifflin’s sales department… and some fans of the show might argue that’s where the similarities end. However, if we dive deeper into their relationship, we see that both Jim and Dwight care about having fulfilling experiences at work. They also care about fostering relationships with certain co-workers (Jim with Pam, and Dwight with Michael). While Jim and Dwight may have varying ideas of how things should function at work, there’s definitely some overlap when it relates to their individual goals.
The more we start to search for common ground, the more we begin to realize that the person we’re in conflict with can *probably* be reasoned with on some level – and that may lead to more satisfying interactions in the future.
As much as we might like to avoid difficult people, that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the best strategy is to find healthy ways to cope with their unpleasant behavior.
It’s no secret that Jim finds his co-workers’ behavior eye-roll-worthy. Fortunately, he has numerous stress-relievers, including:
Dwight also utilizes coping strategies (though they may not always be the healthiest for those around him!), including:
Verywell’s article on emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies can be a great place to start if you’re trying to come up with a list of your own ideas!
What’s important to you (aside from nerdy hobbies and interests, of course)? Common responses may include relationships (with family, friends, romantic partners), academic or career achievements, physical and emotional well-being, etc. If you aren’t clear on what takes the highest priority in your life, then TherapistAid’s values discussion questions and self-exploration worksheets will give you plenty of food for thought.
It’s important to know what your values are whenever you’re dealing with difficult people because, in many ways, your values will determine how you respond to someone’s behavior and statements. For example, if the difficult person you’re dealing with is a family member, and family relationships are one of the things you value most in life, then you’ll probably be more willing to put time and energy toward being civil when you’re around them. On the other hand, if family relationships rank low on your list of priorities, then you may not bother to put in the effort.
When we decided to find common ground between Jim and Dwight, we discovered they both care about their romantic partners, friends, and careers. However, we could argue that Jim doesn’t place as heavy of an emphasis on career advancement compared to Dwight. Therefore, if Jim and Dwight were to go head-to-head for a promotion (and experience a great deal of conflict over it), Jim would probably be the first one to re-evaluate the situation if he felt it was having a negative impact on his relationships with others.
Our values can also provide guidance regarding how we want to treat the difficult people we encounter. For example, someone who values “the golden rule” will probably try to refrain from belittling the other person, even if it’s tempting to give them a taste of their own medicine. When we disregard our values in the process of navigating conflict, we tend to make things even more challenging for ourselves.
We know that saying “sorry” isn’t easy, especially when it’s to a difficult person. This point is hilariously illustrated in “Stress Relief” (Season 5, Episode 13 of The Office), when Dwight is forced to apologize to his co-workers. If you’ve come to the realization that you need to make amends, but don’t know where to start, then here’s another great article from Verywell!
Let’s be clear: difficult =/= abusive. There may come a point where it’s no longer healthy to have as much (or any) contact with a person for a variety of reasons. If you are at this point, then it’s time to set boundaries.
The first step is to understand what boundaries are being violated, and where you need to draw the line. Once again, TherapistAid offers some incredibly helpful worksheets on understanding your personal boundaries and exploring what needs to change.
The next step is to actually set those boundaries. Since that can be easier said than done, it may be wise to practice what you want to say with someone you trust, like a close friend or therapist. In some cases, you may need to take additional steps to ensure your safety before having the conversation about boundaries. The National Domestic Violence Hotline and other resources can offer further support in situations like this one.
Remember, setting boundaries is ultimately about respecting your needs. At Nerdy Therapy, we want you to reach a point where you can more clearly identify what those needs are when you’re dealing with a difficult person. Let us know what you’ve learned in the comments below!