How to Deal with Difficult People Using Non-Reactive Parenting Techniques

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In my last article I wrote about the best parenting tip I’ve ever received. Catch up real quick and read it here.

Nah? In a nutshell, the tip revolves around using non-reactive parenting techniques as tools for discipline and enforcing calm.

Slightly controversial and unpopular opinion alert: this parenting advice works on difficult adults, too. Of course it can’t (and shouldn’t) be applied in the same way. Hopefully you aren’t redirecting other adults out of your trash or from biting others, either.

I’m not advocating for subjecting difficult people to “discipline” techniques. That would be insulting. I’m just saying there are ways to apply non-reactive parenting techniques to encourage pro-social behavior during interactions with difficult people.

THAT Guy (or Girl)

We’ve all been there. Already slightly uncomfortable at the work function/family gathering/PTA meeting and we find ourselves stuck with that guy (or girl). The snarky or complaining or one-upping or passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive guy (or girl).

Sometimes we want to scream by the end of these interactions. But we can’t do that: it’s socially unacceptable, raises the blood pressure, and will only succeed in making the yeller look bad.

Instead, let’s use the purposeful withdrawal and focusing of our attention to discourage negative behavior (i.e., probing questioning, direct or passive-aggressive insults, lying, etc) and encourage positive behavior (pleasant tone, active listening, lack of belittlement, etc).

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Non-reactive Tactics to Deal with Difficult People

When an individual is insulting, aggressive, snarky, etc, during an interaction, instantly employ what are called “less signals.” The first two signals, used in order, usually do the trick. If not, it’s a smorgasboard. Use one, all, or pick your favorites.

how to deal with difficult people using non-reactive parenting techniques

“Less Signals”

Level Stare With Eye Contact

The moment someone is inappropriate, fix them with a level stare. Not a glare, no narrowed or widened eyes. Just a blank, level stare.

Uncomfortable Silence

Now is the time when everyone is quiet and thinks about what they’ve done. Except you’re the only one who knows that. This is a hard step. In the best of circumstances, we can feel the nervous urge to fill silences in social situations. Resist.

Expressionless Face and Toneless Voice

Use the most toneless voice and expressionless face you can muster if the individual continues to be inappropriate and the interaction must continue.

Wandering Attention

Break eye contact, yawn, stretch, count the ceiling tiles. Make the most blatant signs of  detached, emotionless inattention in the face of inappropriate behavior.

Straight up Ignoring

While everyone else is standing there mortified, turn to another adult with a friendly question like, “how’s the sports team?” If this is done in the middle of an aggressive tirade, even better. If alone, play a game on your phone or something.

Talking About “Those Types”

Make verbal acknowledgement of atrocious behavior in a roundabout way by talking about “those types.” Instead of saying, “Quit interrupting, Tim, JEEEZ,” you can say, “I love meetings that flow smoothly. Those ‘interrupting types’ really trip things up lolololol you guys know what I mean.”

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Yikes, the whole ROOM is less signalling this lady.

“More Signals”

Typically, “less signals” make people uncomfortable and soften combative individuals (i.e., they smile, slightly concede their point, use a friendlier tone of voice, cease insults). When this happens, employ what are called “more signals.” And don’t be stingy.

Immediate Re-engagement

It doesn’t matter so much how re-engagement (smiling, eye contact, nodding, etc) happens, but when. It must be immediately. The nanosecond a person seems to back down, turn your radiance on them like a high-class stewardess responding to a frequent flyers’ drink request.

Bright Smile, Soft Eyes, Warm Tone

Gone is the level stare and expressionless face.

Welcoming Body Language

Turn your body towards the more nicely behaving individual, incline your head in their direction.

Verbally Praising Positive Behavior

This is the most extreme and obvious of the “more signals,” and involves actually saying, “hey, thanks for not being a jerk anymore.” But much more smoothly, like, “I can totally see your point! It’s so much easier for me to listen when I’m not being called names, thank you.”

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Just two people. more signalling all over the place.

Does It Work?

Uh, yeah. We are primed to cooperate and engage. Remember the blank faces study I cited in the previous article? We never really grow out of our reactions of distress when faced with non-engagement. As we grow older it is our peers/lovers non-engagement, as opposed to our caregivers, that make us cringe. Instead of crying in the face of rejection (like those poor babies in the study) we drink or eat or spend or self-sabotage too much and talk about how hard it is to make friends as an adult.

An abrupt, cold withdrawal of attention in the midst of an interaction can be intimidating. Not all the time or with every person, sure. But I’ve seen a level stare and an uncomfortable amount of silence prod the unlikeliest of individuals into civility.

Megan using a level stare to deal with difficult people
My best level, emotionless stare

How do you deal with difficult people? Let me know in the comments below! Do you like this article? Share it. Tag someone, I dare you.

Happy boundary maintenance!







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how to deal with difficult people and staycalm




Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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