A Field Guide to Difficult People

They're all around us: the gripers, the undercutters, the edgy, the snooty. To help you manage all that negativity without losing it yourself, psych professor and author Dr. Peggy Drexler explores what's behind their attitude.

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She's smart, she's a riot, she knows the best places to eat — but boy, does she come with lots of baggage.
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When my friend Gwen reads this, she's going to be mad. But that's OK. She's always mad.

Gwen — not her real name, although she'll probably recognize herself — is one of those people often and best described as abrasive. She hurts feelings and bruises egos without remorse. I put up with her sandpapery side because of her good qualities — like being loyal, smart, and so funny that a lunch with her can double as an abs workout — and I suspect her other friends feel the same way.

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Once, as she was coming down from a rant about something (the dry cleaner, I think, or maybe her podiatrist; I lose track), I came right out and asked her why she was so angry, so abrasive all the time. First she denied it. Then she became angry and abrasive. Her ringing lack of self-awareness made me wonder. Most of us, it seems, have a golden retriever eagerness for pleasant encounters. So what makes prickly people so inclined to say things others wouldn't, show no empathy, or otherwise act as if the world is out to get them (and they're out to get the world right back)?

For those of us on the receiving end of all this harshness, understanding what's behind it is key to learning how to deal with such types. And deal with them we must, since there they are, seemingly everywhere: young and old, men and women, snapping from the airplane seat in front of us, giving us the finger in the parking lot, sniping under their breath at work. First step: big sigh. Next: expert help.

Hostile Forces

A colleague's prickliness may be an attempt to hide her fear of not measuring up.
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"Abrasive people come in a few different flavors," says John Townsend, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, CA, and author of Handling Difficult People. But they're pretty easy to spot in the wild. If the most agreeable people live in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the most disagreeable ones might let it burn down. They don't care about the well-being of others, and they don't particularly worry about being liked.

But perhaps the biggest pulsing vein in their collective abrasiveness is their lack of trust in human nature. To always be on the safe side, their strategy is "Do unto others before they do unto you." Marla, a Bostonian who works in retail and has been called abrasive by customers more than once, admits that she can be highly suspicious of others, and as a result, "I'm a tough cookie. Deep down I am a kind person, but I don't always have time to be warm and fuzzy or to come up with the nice words and arrange them in a sentence."

Townsend cites three predominant reasons for a person's abrasiveness, and Marla is an example of the first. Certain people try to control the emotional tone of a situation by putting up a protective wall — electrified, of course, and topped with barbed wire. "If you're abrasive, you don't let in people who could harm you," says Townsend. You see this, he adds, in those who have experienced a painful childhood or traumatic loss, picked up personality traits from a parent, or simply never developed the skills to cope with change or challenge.

The second type of abrasiveness, he says, might be blamed on a lack of self-awareness. These people don't know about or can't help their rough attitude, or they are rewarded for it in some way.

"For years, I didn't take two seconds to think about how I was affecting others around me," says Bernadette Boas, an Atlanta-based leadership coach. "Or that what was driving me was really a deep-seated insecurity." Boas trampled on others in the name of getting what she wanted, which she wrote about in her book, Shedding the Corporate Bitch. Compelled by a fear of failure, she often steamrolled right over everyone. "I always had something to prove," she says. "Being nice wasn't one of those things. But I was getting what I wanted — promotions, raises, praise." So she kept acting that way.

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Indeed, research has found that callous disregard for the feelings of others can be a hallmark of highly successful people (as well as, ahem, serial killers). A study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the ruder or more disrespectful someone acts (in the office, at home, in a traffic jam, or at a PTA meeting), the more she's able to convince others that she's powerful and above the rules.

That doesn't mean we like her. Jerks — even competent ones — are generally avoided, especially at work, says Tiziana Casciaro, a professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and author of a number of studies about likability and abrasiveness in the workplace. "It takes time to be nice!" she adds, and not everyone is willing to put in the effort. "Likable people are often those who help others, who make the effort to come up with solutions that may not benefit themselves." As a result, their work performance can suffer in comparison, if mainly because difficult people aren't wasting any time building bridges.

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The third reason for abrasiveness, says Townsend, is personality type. These are the people who have a mean streak: "They frankly enjoy making others uncomfortable or causing hurt." Again, there are a variety of reasons for this — a traumatic childhood, say, or a bad relationship in the past. Or they may have just been born with an edge that makes them quick to react. These people can be the most difficult to deal with, because being abrasive gives them a kind of high. "If I can arm others with one nugget of insight about those who vomit all over other people, it's that this negativity is all about them," says Boas. "It's not about you."

Push Back or Let It Go?

Someone you don't even know is being obnoxious? The best reaction may be no reaction at all.

So, what's the best response when you encounter abrasive people?

Come back at them with a balance of empathy and self-confidence, suggests Boas. "You may want to try to understand what's making them so abrasive, but also refuse to let their negativity penetrate you," she says. What you shouldn't do is let the rude and the hostile push you to match their nastiness — but this doesn't mean you must lie down and take the abuse. Instead…

Ask them to repeat that insulting thing they just said, "because I want to make sure I understand." That may slow them down and force them to listen to their own words.

Give feedback in a direct, specific, and kind way, Townsend suggests. "Instead of 'Why are you being so mean?' try something like, "It sounds like you're frustrated. If I understand why, I can try to help." If abrasive people can trust that you aren't dead set on disliking them, he adds, they may drop the persona and open up.

Once the encounter is over, don't put aggravating conversations on your personal replay loop. Let it go, especially when dealing with abrasive strangers. "The best advice may be what we tell kids about bullies," says Valentina Zuman, a psychotherapist in Woburn, MA. "Walk away. Don't react. Try not to take it personally — you can remember that even bullies need compassion without condoning their behavior."

And finally, know when to cut ties. Not every relationship can be, or should be, saved, say every one of these experts. "She may be your best friend of 25 years, but if she's draining your energy or constantly pulling you down, you need to create order and boundaries," says Boas. "Maybe that means backing away from her. Maybe it means deciding you'll go to that party alone or not take that trip together rather than put yourself in an environment that's not uplifting. We all have a choice of who's in our circle." You hear that, Gwen? Lunch with you is hilarious, but I've got options.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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