It happens all the time.
Maybe it is a friend, maybe a coworker or a boss, maybe a spouse or other family member, or maybe even someone you don’t know will say or do something that feels like a personal attack. You react defensively with a retaliatory comeback or you say nothing only to feel angry and hurt for days afterward.
Sometimes it is not an unusual situation with an individual but an ongoing problem with a difficult person who seems intent on triggering a negative response from you. It may even lead to overwhelming problems in the relationship, making your work or personal life suffer greatly.
There are ways to deal with difficult interactions, whether infrequent or persistent.
• Avoid an unconscious reaction. This is the most difficult part.
By definition, an unconscious reaction is outside of your awareness. These unconscious reactions are less about the immediate situation and more about past unintegrated emotional experiences. We have all had these reactions at times in our lives. They usually manifest as rage and lead to overt displays of anger or internalized angry energy that leads to anxiety or depression.
Whether we react with externalized or internalized rage, the results are typically an escalation of the conflict and/or an escalation of the discomfort that you feel.
• It is important to slow down your reaction time. As soon as you are aware of a defensive feeling arising within you, immediately get away from the situation. Find a place to breathe slowly and deeply and calm down so you can follow the next recommendations.
• Ask yourself what the intent of the other person may be. Be careful not to automatically personalize it. Odds are the person is not really out to hurt you.
The person may have a need for control because of insecurities or may be angry at someone else and is taking an opportunity to vent.
If you believe the person is truly out to hurt you, then you need to decide if this is a person you want in your life. If it is a boss or coworker, you need to determine your options. Rarely is it prudent to try to retaliate directly.
• After determining the other person is not really out to hurt you, you will be empowered to act responsibly and intentionally in your response.
When we are able to depersonalize the other person’s actions, we are no longer interested in revenge or no longer feel the need to defend ourselves. Instead, we may be interested in taking a difficult situation and making a relationship even better. If we know our own intent, then we can place our full attention on our words and actions in response. Maybe we would want to show respect and empathy. A helpful response can be, “I can see you are angry. Can you help me understand what made you angry?”
• Remember, difficult people have their own agenda. You can rest assured the other person’s behavior is not about you, unless you have obviously and perhaps intentionally provoked someone to attack you in retaliation.
Bottom line: When you become aware of a strong feeling that makes you want to lash out or deny your feelings, get away from the situation. Honestly evaluate the other person’s potential intent and your own desired reaction. Be responsible in your response so you can avoid escalation of conflict and further harm.