A LONG TIME AGO I produced an audiotape
entitled, Leaches, Weeds and Rattlesnakes. It was about
how to handle people who chronically upset you. The title comes
from several analogies I used. People who continually bring you
stress are draining your life of its happiness, like a leach
sucking the lifeblood out of you.
Spending a lot of time trying to deal with
these people is like taking the watering can of your attention
and ignoring the flowers and vegetables in your garden and pouring
the life-giving water (your attention, your time, your effort)
onto the weeds.
People who chronically stress you out and
upset you may have profound difficulties of their own, and you
may very well have sympathy for them, but it isn't wise to play
with them like you wouldn't play with a rattlesnake. They are
dangerous to your well-being.
If the person is someone you work with,
it might be worth the trouble to move to a new department or
different company. You can try the techniques below, but some
people will refuse to cooperate and will simply suck the life
out of you and then move on to the next person foolish enough
or nice enough to spend time with them. These people are not
very common, but they exist, and you should not be naïve
enough to let them cause you more stress than you need.
The following are some simple methods you
can try with the person. Often they will work, and it will greatly
reduce the amount of stress you get from your relationship. But
if not, weigh the cost: If it costs you less stress to phase
them out of your life than it would to keep them around, start
1. Don't assume anything. No matter
how good your intuition is, you're still wrong sometimes. And
your actions ensue from your assumptions. You can create an antagonistic
relationship with someone with assumptions alone. How do you
keep from assuming? Simple: Ask for the information you want.
2. Be honest. This may be something
you'll have to start doing gradually. First pay attention; notice
how you habitually withhold certain kinds of information from
that person. And then slowly say some of that stuff. It may cause
some trouble, but it may also change things for the better. Either
the person will upset you less, or they will pull themselves
out of your life and interact with you less because they don't
like your honesty. Either way, you're better off.
3. Listen well. When the person
has something to say, especially in response to your honesty,
listen as well as you can. Really make the effort to give them
your full attention and let them know they've been heard and
understood, without arguing back, without saying, "yes but"
or trying to defend yourself, or whatever. You might be able
to do all that stuff at some other time, but when you're listening,
4. Don't avoid confrontations. It
just prolongs the agony. If you have something you need to talk
about, sit down now and think it through and then talk to the
person. Get it over with.
5. Don't talk when you're upset.
When people are upset, they are less rational than when they
are calm. I wish I had known about this thirty years ago. It
would have saved me hundreds of hours of misery. Having reactive
adrenal glands and not knowing this rule means I spent hours
trying to argue and solve problems when I was way too upset to
If you aren't used to the idea, it feels
wrong to take a break in the middle of an argument. But you'll
like the result. After you calm down (which takes about twenty
minutes), you'll sometimes realize what you were angry about
isn't that big of a deal after all and you can calmly discuss
the problem and solve it quickly, whereas you could have yelled
about it for two hours and gotten absolutely nowhere. Or worse.
Avoid making assumptions. Gradually increase
your level of honesty. Listen well. Get those confrontations
over with as soon as you can. And don't talk when you're upset.
These methods can help you have less upset and anxiety in your
life when dealing with difficult people, and less stress hormones
in your bloodstream in the long run. And that will be good for
your health, good for your brain (stress destroys brain cells),
and good for your important relationships.
When you're having trouble with
someone, follow these rules when you talk to them:
Don't assume anything.
Don't avoid confrontations.
Don't talk when you're upset.