Guest blog post by FHRD Member, Paths Clinic

Managing Difficult Behaviour

Most of you probably have someone in your life you’d like to keep a very wide berth from, or cut out of your life completely but, for various reasons, aren’t able to. This may be someone you work with, a partner, sibling, flatmate, parent, in-law or any close relative, who is verbally aggressive, insulting, rude or insensitive. Therefore, I’d like to give you some guidelines on how to deal with this person without it impacting your other relationships and preserving your safety and emotional well-being in the process.

Go within

Take some time to get in touch with your thoughts and feelings regarding this person’s behaviour. How do you feel when around this person? How does this person’s words and actions make you feel? Are the feelings being triggered familiar for you. i.e are they taking you back to a time in your life when you felt weak or vulnerable? I once had a client whose colleague regularly made fun of him in front of other colleagues and, although he often told him to stop, his colleague continued. Although this was unpleasant in itself, on closer reflection my client became aware that this behaviour was reminding him of when he was a child, when his father often criticised and made fun of him in front of his siblings and cousins. This situation with his colleague was reminding him of the helplessness and vulnerability he felt as a child, when his boundaries were not acknowledged and respected. Understanding this will enable you to take the power out of the present situation and instead address the original hurt or wound.

Pause before responding

Although it’s very tempting to tell a difficult person exactly what you think of him or her, replying in a fit of rage will only encourage the difficult person further and will have no positive impact. Instead, ground yourself and focus on your breathing. If the person is shouting, keep your voice at a ‘normal’ level and if the person moves towards you aggressively, ensure you don’t retaliate. Instead, move back to maintain a safe distance or move away altogether. When someone is unreasonable or trying to upset you, it’s not the time to solve whatever issue has been brought up. Try responding in a calm, non-defensive manner, without attacking or making any personal comments about the person. If you’re aware the other person isn’t open to hear your thoughts, tell them that you don’t wish to engage in the discussion at this time and simply leave the room. I say ‘simply’ knowing fully well that this stance isn’t at all simple. It actually takes a lot of strength and discipline, but you’ll be saving yourself a great deal of energy and pain.

See beyond the person’s actions and words

Hurtful or aggressive behaviour should never be tolerated or justified. However, it can help us move out of anger quicker if we try to have a deeper understanding of why this person behaves in the way he or she does. Generally, someone who regularly hurts or abuses others is hurting or suffering in some way themselves. They’re not hurting you because there’s something wrong with you. Remembering this can help you refrain from trying to hurt them back because, with this awareness, you know that they’re already suffering and your punishment isn’t needed. If you look a bit deeper into what you know of someone who hurts and attacks others, you’ll probably find insecurity, deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with oneself or one’s life.

Focus on the behaviour

If you feel safe to do so, when you’re calmer, find a quiet moment to speak to the person who has hurt you. When doing so, don’t criticise or attack him as a person. Instead, focus on the behaviour. For instance, you may say, ‘When you speak to me in that way, I feel disrespected and misunderstood’. This is very different from saying ‘You’re a disrespectful person’, and the likelihood is that the other person will be less likely to react defensively or attack you.

Create boundaries

In a calm, yet firm manner, make it very clear what behaviour you’re not willing to tolerate and what the consequences will be if your boundaries are not respected. For instance, you may say something like, ‘I don’t appreciate you ridiculing me in front of our colleagues. If you do this again, I’ll take the matter to Human Resources’. It’s important that you then follow-through if this person disrespects your boundaries, showing that you mean what you say.

Accept that you can’t change this person

This is a hard pill to swallow. We like to believe that making people aware of unhelpful and troublesome behaviour will translate into them making the effort to change. If only it were that straightforward. You can help people understand how their behaviour affects you and what you need from them, but change will only come if that person makes the decision and effort to do so. It’s amazing how often we allow ourselves to be disappointed and hurt over and over again by the same person because we expect that awareness leads to change. It doesn’t. Rather than expect someone to change, decide what you wish to do if the person doesn’t change. If you have little option but to have this person in your life, whilst you may not be able to change them, you can change how much this person affects you.

Reach out

It can be quite distressing to have someone in your life who regularly pushes your buttons and who doesn’t respect your boundaries or feelings. If you have someone you trust who can support you, reach out to them. It may also be wise to seek professional help from a therapist so as to better understand what this person’s actions are triggering in you and to give you tools to manage your emotions and responses.

Practice self-compassion

When you feel hurt or wounded, try to get in touch with what the wounded part of you needs. For instance, if someone’s behaviour causes you to feel small and insignificant, remind yourself of your worth. I find a powerful way to do this is to place my hand on my heart and say, ‘I love and value myself’. Try this and allow these words to really sink into the deep place within you that is hurting. Do what you feel will help you feel safe and cared for. It may be meeting a friend for a coffee, making yourself a comforting meal or watching a film. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to treat yourself with kindness and compassion.

Since it can feel so disempowering when someone mistreats you, using the above tools can be an important process in taking back your power. Ultimately, you can’t control other people’s behaviour but you do have some responsibility over how much you let it impact you.


Psychotherapist Danjela Falzon works with clients on issues related to anxiety, depression, burnout, stress, relationships, sexuality, personality disorders, self-esteem and self-growth. She forms part of the team at paths Clinic. For more information, visit