We all have difficult people in our lives—some almost impossible to get along with. It seems like almost every time we engage them, we end up getting caught in a power struggle, which can often escalate into volatile situations. Though it is indeed a challenge to turn these relationships around, we can at least make the situations significantly better by better understanding others and knowing ourselves.
There Are Wounded People Out There
The first thing we need to remember is that difficult people are that way for a reason. They are often angry at the world because they feel hurt and victimized by the general population, so they take out their anger on OTHERS.
Sometimes, they are angry with people from whom they can no longer get justice, such as a parent or sibling who may have victimized them when they were a child. For them, it takes a great deal of work to heal these wounds. We sometimes make things worse by touching those wounds that have not yet healed. When we do this, we usually get a negative reaction.
How Can We Make Things Better?
Though we may not be able to cure difficult people of their emotional afflictions, we can certainly not aggravate the situation. The first thing we need is a great deal of compassion. We need to look behind their wall of defense and see the wounded child looking for respite from the pain and suffering. Once we can see the wounded child in them, it is much easier for us to behave in a more kind and gentle manner. One powerful tool at our disposal is deep listening.
The power of deep listening never ceases to amaze me. Oftentimes, people who are deeply wounded feel like nobody listens to them. The message they get is that others don’t think they are worthwhile. We can turn that around. By listening to them, we send them the clear message that someone thinks what they have to say is important, and therefore, they too are important. We can sometimes turn an adversary into a friend.
Practicing deep listening takes a great deal of patience. At first, the other person will try everything they can to engage us in a power struggle. We must be mindful of this and resist the temptation to strike back as a response to their harsh words.
The next thing to do is listen to their concerns with genuine interest. They will often be surprised that someone is truly interested in their concerns. When they realize that, their demeanor will usually change. They often become less abrasive.
When we engage difficult people, we sometimes become drawn into a power struggle or emotionally volatile situation. We can diffuse these situations by remaining calm and listening deeply to their concerns. When we do this, they will sometimes realize that we are not out to inflict more pain and suffering on them and that we are genuinely concerned for their well-being.
Most of us find it challenging dealing with difficult people in a healthy manner. Our most common reactions are to either become defensive or go on the offensive. However, these reactions seldom make the situations any better. In fact, they usually make things worse.
While deep listening can send a clear message to another person that we have no intentions of harming them, mindful speech helps to promote peace and harmony with everyone we engage with.
For most of my life, I never paid much attention to the effect my words had on other people in my interactions with them. I usually spoke as a reaction to someone addressing me. I lived in my emotional brain – reactive. I never thought about how my words would be received. Very often, what I said and what the other person heard were two entirely different things. Part of it was because of their preconceived ideas about me and the situation. But the difference was also due to my choice of words. They didn’t always communicate the meaning I intended.
Get to Know Yourself
My first big lesson in mindful speech came when I did a mindfulness meditation retreat. At the orientation, we were told that we would be practicing “noble silence” for the next 4 days. My immediate reaction was one of panic. I was surprised at this because my intellect told me that it wouldn’t harm me to go a few days without speaking, but emotionally I felt very vulnerable.
During those 4 days, I could communicate by writing on a notepad. Since it wasn’t feasible to write out a long conversation, I had to choose my words carefully. This is when I began to think about how best to communicate my message. In other words, I wanted to make sure the other person understood exactly what I meant.
It soon became clear that I used my speech for things other than communication. I used it to get what I wanted, and all the superfluous conversation was intended to manipulate people to that end. And since I was primarily interested in satisfying my own needs, I was not so concerned about the other person’s well-being. I may have told myself that I was, but the truth of the matter was that my own wants and desires always came first. I viewed situations in terms of what I was going to get out of them.
What I learned about myself was that my intentions were not as noble as I thought. If I truly wanted to be the enlightened person I thought I was, then I needed to be more mindful of my speech. That is, I needed to choose words that nurtured healing and understanding.
From that point, I began to think before I spoke. I paid particular attention to how my words might be interpreted. One thing I noticed that I did in the past was poke fun at other people. It may have seemed like harmless fun, but it kept people on the defensive when they were around me. That is, they were always on guard and never at ease.
Now, when I’m around other people I try to use words of encouragement to help uplift their spirits. I try to show sincere interest in the things going on in their lives. Not only does it help the other person, but it also helps me because they become more open and provide me with the spiritual nourishment that helps me grow.
Tips for Practicing Mindful Speech
Mindful speech is a tool that takes some effort to develop. However, the rewards to everyone involved are immeasurable. Here are five tips I recommend for practicing mindful speech:
Think before you speak. Try to avoid reacting to someone else’s words. Think about how your words will be received.
Resist the temptation to engage in a power struggle. It’s not necessary to always be right. If their words are abrasive, then we can easily be drawn into a power struggle.
Try to be forgiving, understanding, and compassionate. If we continue to see the wounded person, then it’s easier to be compassionate and understanding of their shortcomings.
Choose words that promote trust. These can convey concern for the other person’s well-being.
Use words of encouragement. These can promote sincerity, harmony, and healing. Express some enthusiasm for others’ accomplishments, no matter how small they may be.
Though I still consider myself to be learning how to practice mindful speech, my relationships with people (and especially difficult people) are much more enjoyable—whether they are with loved ones or with strangers. You too can enjoy these rewards if you stay committed to listening and speaking mindfully.
About the Author: This article was written by Charles Frances and edited and reprinted with the permission of our friends at The Mindfulness Meditation Institute. To learn more about their work, please visit www.mindfulnessmeditationinstitute.org. Find the original articles here and here.