Do you have people in your life who are so difficult and demanding that speaking your mind feels like it’s not even worth the hassle?

If you’re nodding your head, then this episode is for you.

I’m giving you proactive ways to approach impossible people and tips to verbally de-escalate situations so you can protect yourself from being harmed by future interactions!

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Having to deal with difficult personalities and unreasonable people is a fact of life. 

The question is: how do we deal with those folks and keep our sanity intact? The answer: we have to get strategic. If not, we leave ourselves too vulnerable to deal with whatever it is they are dishing out. Having a strategy ahead of time prepares us for the inevitable moments of stress and conflict that can arise with unreasonable people and allows us to protect ourselves. 

Let’s start with someone who is quick to escalate when you are trying to discuss something. Do you have someone in your life who gets superheated very quickly? Here’s how to de-escalate the situation and still be heard:

  • Keep your cool. It’s essential for you to stay calm even when the other person is anything but calm. To the best of your ability, don’t let their activation activate you
  • Listen to what they are saying. When someone is already in an activated state, if you start interrupting or giving them a lot of pushback, the chances of a good outcome and reaching a deeper understanding are small.
  • Try not to judge. Do your best to remain as neutral as possible, and try not to say anything critical or judgmental. 
  • Instead, try saying something like, “I hear you,” or, “Help me understand how you feel”. This strategy can be effective when it comes to de-escalating someone who is already activated. Difficult personalities have a very low tolerance for their own frustration, so what they need in a moment like this is to vent. That’s not to say you should always be the one they vent to! 
  • Try not to get defensive. This can be hard when someone is being unreasonable, and believe me, I get it. My natural inclination in these situations is to point out how ridiculous this person is being. In my personal and professional experience, getting defensive with impossible people, even though it’s natural, doesn’t make it better. Take a deep breath and try not to take what they are saying personally. It’s really about them anyway, right?

So much of the time, the underlying needs of the other person are what we need to find in order to de-escalate them. When difficult personalities are upset, they are usually projecting their feelings and displacing their aggression onto you. Their need is to be seen, understood, and heard (even if they are being irrational). 

Our instinct when things get heated can be to immediately step away from the conversation, but if we do so abruptly, it often will escalate the situation. So shutting it down in an aggressive or harsh way is not the thing to do. Stay calm, let them have their say (without accepting abusive behavior), and when it makes sense, extricate yourself from the conversation as gently as possible. 

Get honest and real with yourself about the people in your life who consistently bait you or try to draw you into conflict. Don’t take the bait. Know your people and act accordingly. 

Do you ever feel like someone intentionally misunderstands you on a regular basis?
I have someone in my life who no matter what I say will always take the opposite side and question me. I’ve never really understood it, but I do understand it is just in his nature to be contrary and crave debate, so I have learned to step back from being sucked into a conflict with this particular person as a rule. 

Being proactive also means knowing yourself and getting really clear about what is on your side of the street and what isn’t when you are in the thick of it with a difficult person. If you tend towards codependency or are an auto-fixer, you are likely especially vulnerable to wanting to always have the answer for someone and to be of service in some way. 

No matter who the difficult person is in your life, it is not your job to save them, in fact, it is not even possible for you to do that. Some people are very attached to their unhappiness. Their misery and disappointment with life can be deeply entwined with their identity. These personality types talk about what bad luck they have, how life is so unfair, how they can’t get a break etc. The reality of interacting with individuals like this, especially if you are codependent, is they will definitely find a way to make you the target of their anger and frustration. 

So know thy self! If you’re an auto-advice giver, an auto-fixer, a people-pleaser, and/or a highly codependent human being, practice allowing the misery-loves-company types to just BE, without you taking it on. When you can get clear on what is and what isn’t yours, you can say something like, “I’m not responsible for that, but if you want to talk about how you’re feeling, that’s OK.” 

As a recovering codependent and auto-helper, I know firsthand how we can attract these types into our lives. It’s like they are attracted to our light and our desire to help. And even though we may have the best intentions to try and problem-solve with them, again and again, unreasonable and impossible people will come up with a reason why your solution won’t work or another problem. It’s like quicksand. You can decide to stop letting this dynamic take up your precious bandwidth and instead allow them to be the way they are. 

Remember, we can’t approach others as if they are like us, even though there is a natural inclination to do so. Positive projection is when we make assumptions other people want, think, and believe the same things we do. The world isn’t like that…and unreasonable people are definitely not like that! It doesn’t make them bad people per se, it just makes them different. This means we can’t act from the assumption that if they have a problem, they want to solve it (as we would). 

You can still love them and be supportive without getting deeper and deeper into their chaos. Long ago I stopped making suggestions about what the difficult people in my life should do. I will usually say something like, “Hey, I have no doubt you’ll figure it out. Because, really, you’re the only one who can.” 

What’s the best way to protect ourselves from being harmed by these personality types? Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! It can be hard to set boundaries with the people in our lives and it is even more so if they are especially difficult. If you know there is definitely going to be pushback, it can be doubly challenging to communicate clear, healthy boundaries. 

Raise your awareness around your comfort level with boundary setting. Are you okay doing it? Do you know how to take a step back from some of these relationships when necessary? Setting healthy boundaries means effectively communicating your preferences, desires, limits, and deal breakers. 

When it comes to unreasonable people, even if you say your boundary script perfectly, they may still find a way to take issue with the way that you set it, with your tone of voice, etc. For some people, no matter how you do it, you’re going to be doing it wrong according to them. 

If you have someone who is constantly accusing you of something or who always complains about the same thing and they aren’t willing to change, ask yourself:

“Why am I allowing them to take up all this bandwidth in my life?”

There are so many reasons why we can find ourselves in these situations – like guilt, a sense of obligation, and fear of rejection. Maybe you’ve never tried to assert yourself because, as I said at the top, it just feels like too much of a hassle. But taking your life back requires us to develop our Boundary Boss skills and deal with our own side of the street. 

We need to learn how to get clear on our actual responsibilities. Are you taking emotional responsibility for something that is not yours to take? It is possible to be completely supportive and keep your boundaries intact. It just takes practice. 

I have more resources and ideas for things you can do in this week’s downloadable guide, so be sure to grab that right here.

I want to hear from you- do you have unreasonable people in your life? Leave me a comment below or connect with me over on Instagram @terricole or in my free Facebook group and let me know. 

Whoever it is, the bottom line is you can stay lovingly attached to the people in your life and not take this stuff on. It requires a shift in strategy, a willingness to take an honest look at yourself, and badass boundary skills. You can do this! 

I hope that you have an amazing week and as always take care of you.

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  1. Whoa! This article is perfect for my current situation as I have been in the struggle of dealing with different toxic or difficult people. This is always been my main issue ever since I get married, trying to deal with them to the intent my sanity is not affected. I always stay calm, this is something that I am glad that I have as a character. I always find myself staying cool despite the harsh argument. I like the process of de-escalation, probably my work in customer service helps me a lot in the actual situation that I am in. Although some of the techniques, I am currently doing and yet I'm so thankful for having this article. This is very much helpful. Thank you.

  2. Wow , this REALLY hits home. I have really been trying to fix, teach… for so many years and still it is difficult. Of course this person being my son I have put hope into having a super good communication but Your presentation has put reality into our relationship. He is now 26 years old, and some things don't change and that has hurt me but I since I can not '' save him from himself'' I will look at how do I perceived the situation and where are my boundaries. Thank you sooooo much

  3. Terri, thank you for this reminder. I get the opportunity to deal with this issue whenever I speak with my sister. I am a lot better now, but because I basically acted as her mother since both of our parents were unavailable, it is an old habit of trying to teach her behaviors which I now realize is futile since we are both grown. I realize that she does not want the benefit of my "infinite wisdom", and I keep a note nearby to just listen and not yield to the siren call to "help her". Confidence in herself doing her own problem-solving is what I can do to best support her. You are a gem, Terri, and I have learned so much from your words. Keep on reminding us. It takes a long time for some of us to undo old patterns. Much love,

    1. Hi Marilynn – thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, I’m so glad you are here. ❤ I’m cheering you along and holding space for your transformation.

  4. Dear Terri, this has been sooo helpful!!! Sooo insightful!!! This is exactly the main issue I have been having with the two most important men in my life: my dad and my husband (but whom I am about to divorce). And I have been hoping for years and years and years that I could help them change, live with more peace and joy and love. I am a fixer, a people-pleaser – I have realised this some time ago. And co-dependent.

    But step by step I am moving back into my own freedom, letting go of what no longer serves me and which I cannot change (which is in the case of my dad and husband not my job anyway, as I have realised through programs such as yours and others). I have been following you for some time now, and want to thank you for helping me rediscover and reconnect to my own power and resources inside of me. It amazes me again and again to realise just how many blind spots I keep on discovering in myself (which makes me in the meantime really humble towards judging others all too quickly!).

    So, thank you thank you thank you for sharing this timely advice that hits the nail on the head so adaptly and almost word for word in my case :). It has given me the tools to face the repeated issues I keep on encountering from a different perspective, and most of all, help me protect myself.

    Wishing you all the loving best,


    1. Hi Michelle – thank you so much for being here, and for your kind words. ❤️ I am witnessing your journey with both compassion and joy for what’s to come now that you are moving back into your own freedom. I’ll be cheering you on along the way!

  5. Thank you for always lighting the path! You make it easier to walk the twisting road of life. I am getting much better at drawing boundaries and it does make life easier, thank you for the training. I am living with a man who is a repeat boundary offender (mostly with finances–I have completely supported us for a year despite saying I am not ok with this), a pessimistic personality, and prone to outbursts of anger as well as stonewalling (he once didn't speak to me for two days because I booked the housecleaners, and he would rather not use housecleaners but neither will he clean anything besides the kitchen). It all stems from childhood wounds (schizophrenic mother among other things) that are understandable sources of this behavior/outlook and I have so much empathy for these wounds. But he is not willing to seek help healing from the trauma, and I am not sure how much more I can take. In part because I cannot tell whether he is just difficult, or abusive? How do you tell where the line is between difficult and abusive (emotionally abusive, that is, without any physical element as a red flag)? Thank you for all you do.

    1. Hi Zara, if his behavior makes you feel bad, unsafe, used or exhausted it is a problem. It does not matter what you call the behavior- the thing that is clear from your note is that this relationship is not working for you (and that is OK). Might be time to move on.

  6. I love this Terri! I think I am an auto-fixer! Maybe now that I am aware, I can minimize the urge to fix others’ issues. Thank you so much!

  7. Thank you for addressing this difficult topic.
    I have family members with no boundaries. They enjoy talking badly about others and spreading gossip. I had to set a boundary with your script: I would like to make a simple request – please don't continue to talk about – – –

    I need to stay calm — big one for me — I like to respond quickly to try to defend my position. This is my family of origin rearing its' ugly head.

    Thank you for your expert advice! I will print the guide as a tool, as well.

    1. Hi Linda – thank you for sharing with us. Go YOU for setting that boundary!! And for recognizing why you respond quickly and try to defend your position. You’re so not alone. ❤

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