How to Deal with Difficult People
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The sound of her unnecessarily aggressive chewing drives you crazy. You cringe every time he opens his mouth. You cannot remain in one room with her for too long before you get irritated. More often than not, your conversations with him turn into arguments. When you aren’t with her, you find every opportunity to complain about her annoying habits. You dismiss the qualities that other people seem to admire about him, since to you his virtues seem insincere or unimpressive. This person may be your parent, sibling, spouse, roommate, coworker or friend. We all have at least one of them in our lives.
Tension in our close relationships can put a huge strain on our mental and emotional well-being. Thousands of books have been written on the topic and there is hardly a human being who doesn’t wonder how they can make the difficult relationships in their lives just a little bit better. In this essay, we will discuss some of the classic tips and techniques explored in popular self-help books (specifically How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie) and contrast it with the unique approach taken by the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Rebbe Rashab), in his famous essay titled Heichaltzu.
The first step in the approach that many self-help books take is to study the inherent weaknesses of the people around you, in order to develop techniques for interacting with them effectively. One of the most popular books on the subject is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a bestseller that has sold over 16 million copies. In his first chapter he presents the principle that he uses as the basis for his suggested techniques for dealing with difficult people: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity”. In other words, as long as we understand that the people around us are naturally self-centered, irrational and vain, we will be able to get along with them better by simply feeding into their egotism and selfishness.
Carnegie suggests practical tips such as calling others by their first name, speaking in terms of the other person’s interests, smiling, making the other person feel important, and admitting that you are wrong. These are based on the premise that the person you are dealing with is an attention seeking, unreasonable being who can easily be maneuvered if we use the right techniques. Although Carnegie does emphasize at various points in the book that when employing his techniques, they must be ‘sincere’, it is clear that the underlying message of the book is primarily manipulative. This message is evident in his title “How to Win Friends” and is expressed most blatantly at the beginning of chapter 3:
“Personally, I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or a grasshopper in front of the fish and said ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’ Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”
Carnegie’s techniques may be useful in persuading people to behave as you please and gaining superficial popularity. However in addition to being both condescending and manipulative, it falls short when trying to apply these techniques to improving a close or long-term relationship in any meaningful way. Employing superficial tricks to manipulate the people around you to your liking does not have any long lasting impact and certainly does not help you develop healthy, close connections with them.
Nothing as Practical as a Good Theory
There are many who study the teachings of Chassidus and claim that they are not practical or relevant to the common person. Chassidus often speaks about esoteric ideas and even the more psychological parts of it seem to have unrealistic expectations. Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a well-known scholar and teacher of Chassidus, once addressed the question of the relevance of Chassidus in the twenty-first century:
“Is the fact that the perimeter of a square is larger than the circumference of the circle inscribed in it, a concept that only exists within the human experience, or is this part of objective reality? Obviously, even if there were no humans in the world, the perimeter of the square would still be larger than the circle. This is a fact that exists regardless of human experience. While it is true that when a person learns a fact like that, it becomes part of his own knowledge and experience, nevertheless it remains a fact even without him.
“The same is true in our personal development. For example, when the Rabbis say “Be humble before every person”, their intention is not just that a person should behave in a humble way in front of another person. In a certain way, one is truly more “lowly” than the other person. It is irrelevant whether the person can sense this or not. It is a fact. The instruction to the person is merely that he meditate on this truth, until his mind reaches the same conclusion, which will then lead to humble thoughts and behavior.”
We often believe that the best way to remedy a situation is by finding concrete, quantifiable steps that will get rid of the symptoms. However, these behaviors merely create the illusion of change, without transforming the person’s underlying perspectives that are at the root of their unhealthy habits. If we are looking for real internal change, we need to remember that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. The approach of Chassidus is to expose us to the truth of reality, so we can shift our perspective on the world and on the people around us. Once we align our thought pattern with that reality, our behavior changes much more naturally and authentically. In the words of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, “Chassidus did not come to make us more religious, it came to make us wiser.”
Using this approach, we can now look at how Heichaltzu deals with the issue of difficult relationships. Like in other areas of Chassidus, the Rebbe Rashab describes the objective reality, in the hopes that this gained perspective will cause the difficulty in the relationship to dissipate automatically. In contrast to the previous approach, the approach of Chassidus will be about honest introspection , rather than behavioral manipulation.
Taking up Space
Everything in the physical world takes up space. Some take up physical space, some take up emotional or conceptual space. When an object takes up space, by definition, nothing else can stand in its place. The more space an object takes up, the less room there is for anything else. This is true of both physical and metaphysical space. The first thing we need to become aware of when dealing with other people is that by virtue of the fact that we exist, we take up space. The more space we create for our own existence, the less space we leave for the people around us. The more importance we attribute to our own feelings, thoughts, opinions and preferences, the less room there is for someone else to express theirs. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe records a famous story about a man who complained to the Tzemach Tzedek (3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe), “Everyone in the Beit Midrash (study hall) is stepping on me!” The Tzemach tzedek replied, “When you spread yourself across the entire floor of the Beit Midrash, they have nowhere else to step, except on you.”
The root of our intolerance is the fact that our own ego is suffering from emotional claustrophobia and cannot tolerate having another person invade its space. In the words of the Rebbe Rashab, “His opposition to the other person is not due to a specific quality, but due to the fact the other exists. The other’s existence diminishes his own ego. This then leads him to oppose the other and makes him incapable of tolerating him.” The frustration we have with the people around us doesn’t start from the negative qualities or habits we attribute to them. Those are all justifications we invent once the other person’s presence poses a threat to our own. We then develop defense mechanisms to “protect our space”. Arbitrary mannerisms or habits begin to annoy us, we dismiss any positive qualities the person has, we feel the need to disagree with that person on every issue that arises, we magnify any fault the person has and complain about them to others, we blame the person for anything that goes wrong, we secretly mourn their successes and celebrate their failures. Some of these habits might sound immediately familiar, while others may require some introspection, but all are symptoms of the same core issue.
Identifying these feelings and habits and recognizing where they are coming from will naturally begin to shift the dynamic in our relationships. We’ll start to realize that perhaps it’s not that the people are difficult, but that we have difficulty with people. Instead of placing all our expectations on the people around to bend around our opinions and preferences in order to make the relationship work, we can instead turn inward and look to change our own mind frame. This doesn’t mean simply adopting new behaviors or repeating a mantra in our heads. Rather, it is about facing the truth about ourselves and how our inflated sense of self breeds the negative emotions we suffer from.
Putting Theory Into Practice
Applying this approach to our relationships takes honest introspection which will naturally lead to a gradual shift in our thought patterns, and eventually our speech and behavior. Next time we are dealing with a difficult person in our lives, we may consider the message of Heichaltzu and ask ourselves:
- What makes my feelings or opinions more valid than the other person’s?
- Are my frustrations with the other person a reflection of objective reality?
- Can I recognize and respect the other person’s positive qualities?
- Am I blaming the other person for things that are not their fault?
- Can I allow the other person to be different than me and still respect them for it?
- Can I put aside my own feelings or opinions in order to make space for the other person’s?
- Can I rejoice in the other person’s success?
- Can I mourn the other person’s failure?
- How is my ego blocking me from connecting to the other person?
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 Pirkei Avot 4:10
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