top of page

The Importance of Practicing Compassion With Difficult People

There will always be a difficult person in our life. Whether it's a boss, a friend, a family member or even a significant other - difficult people can't be avoided. However, it's how we learn to deal with a difficult person that can become truly life-changing for us.

A New Point of View - Cognitive Compassion:

"Taking a compassionate approach with difficult people is empathizing with the suffering that drives irrational, disrespectful, and hurtful behavior. This type of compassion is called cognitive compassion. It helps us depersonalize the behavior and recognize that when people express disrespect or anger toward us, they are manifesting feelings that are more about their own internal suffering than about us. In this way, we defuse our anger, irritation, fear, worry, or frustration about what that person did or said. Clarity arises and we can see how hurt or damaged the difficult person is and we no longer take their words or actions personally. As a result, we react effectively and manage the situation skillfully." (Dr. Christine E. Dickson, A Compassionate Approach with Difficult People)

Consequences Of Lacking Compassion For Others:

As Dr. Christine E. Dickson further explains, when we take a non-compassionate approach to someone's behavior, we suddenly find ourselves soaking up negative emotions we don't want and, as a result, add fuel to the flames. We may react by feeling guilty or responsible, offering advice and trying to "fix" the problem, judging, defending, arguing, yelling, crying, worrying, talking excessively about the interaction, behaving in a cold or distant manner, acting in an overly sympathetic manner, withdrawing, being passive aggressive, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, inappropriately involving others in the conflict, writing inflammatory emails, texting inappropriately, or overall making poor decisions about how to handle the person and situation.

Here are Four Ways To Practice Compassion With A Difficult Person:

Pause. Avoid reacting right away. - This is probably the most important step you can take when a difficult person is projecting their negative energy onto you. Before you respond or react, pause exactly where you are to create space between you and the person you're interacting with. A great way to literally pause in the moment is taking a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Usually, people who are projecting their struggles on you want a reaction. That's what they thrive off of because it keeps them hyped up, ready to continue spilling their toxic behavior onto you. Give the difficult person space to be miserable without interfering, without energizing it, or sharing in their pain.

Try your best to not take it personally and get triggered - This is sort of a two-in-one step process. Understanding that the way this difficult person is acting is stuff bubbling up from their internal turmoil that has absolutely nothing to do with you. They may struggle with processing their emotions, and as a result, project it on others. Of course, being on the receiving end of their miserableness is not fun, however, it is possible to still be in control and not get triggered. Sometimes this is easier said than done with certain situations, but continually practicing cognitive compassion will make this process a whole lot easier on yourself.

If you're able to, remove yourself from the situation - After being exposed to a difficult person, most often than not we feel compelled to stay as far away from them as possible. This is another reminder that you are still in control of the situation and can end this interaction as soon as possible. You can calmly excuse yourself from the interaction by acknowledging the situation, "I can see that you are struggling in this moment. I'm going to leave now so we can both have the space we need to process our feelings." After that, leave as quickly/calmly as you can and don't engage with this person any further.

  • If you're unable to remove yourself from the situation, find a calm way to change the subject and vibe - I'm sure we have all experienced a very uncomfortable moment where we wished we could escape, but we're stuck where we are for a number of reasons - at a family lunch, we didn't take our own car to an event, we're unable to leave work, or maybe the difficult person is a client that we feel pressured to stay in business with. Whatever the reason may be that doesn't allow you to remove yourself from the situation, it's important to remember that you still have the power to lead the conversation in a new direction. You may do so by calmly changing the subject, using humor to deflect the situation, letting them know that you're feeling uncomfortable and would prefer to talk about something else, or asking them to remove themselves from the situation if they are making you uncomfortable. (Obviously, if you feel you are in real danger due to this individual, try to find a safe space quickly where you can quickly call 9-1-1 for help.)

Protect your peace - When interacting with a difficult person, it's important to remember to protect your peace. If you know the person you're about to interact with is difficult at times, always remind yourself to keep the objective of your interaction to protect your peace. If you're blindsided by someone's difficult behavior, use the steps above to help protect your peace and to stay as detached as possible from the emotions of the other person.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts:

It's important to remember that compassion is about recognizing the suffering of others and acknowledging that they are on a different journey than you. We each have our own life stories that have led us to exactly where we are in our lives at this very moment in time. Some people may still be stuck in the past and project their hurt onto you, while others may be in denial about the present moment to take accountability for their actions, and some may be too overwhelmed about the future to function properly. Each of us are on our own journey. We are all at different stages of our lives mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Difficult people are impossible to avoid, and interacting with them will be trial and error, but that's okay. We are all students of life, and every interaction we encounter follows with a chain of events that we can learn from in some way.

"Peace is not what you experience when there is no noise, trouble, or hard work; instead, it means being amidst those things and yet be calm in your heart." - Princella Seripenah


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page