How to Be Kind to Difficult People

We have so many concepts about others, and sometimes even before we know that person, we’ve already given them this label: “Difficult.” It’s like a big tag they’re wearing whenever we see them. So I think what’s obstructing us from dealing with them is our prejudgments and preconceptions about who they are. We have so many thoughts about them even before we get to know them. In a sense, this may make you less able to deal with a “difficult” person. And actually, if you take a closer look, it may turn out that the difficult person is you.

Whenever we have a biased view, there’s a big problem, right? When we look at someone with a negative view, a negative bias, then we only see this huge, negative quality of this person––nothing positive. When we’re having a difficult time in our relationship with a partner, for example, we begin to see only the negative side. “His desk is always a mess,” “She’s always late,” and things like that. But in reality, that person has both negative and positive qualities. We magnify one side of that person or another at different times. When we’re first falling in love with someone, we only see the positive. We don’t see anything negative about them at all. Isn’t that nice?

Once I was taking a trip and had just boarded the airplane. This was not long after the tragedy of 9/11. In a seat nearby there was a person who looked a little bit dangerous. I was getting uncomfortable, thinking, “Is this flight going to be safe?” and things like that. But as I looked around, suddenly I realized that other people might just as easily be having the same thoughts about me, thinking I look dangerous.

We’re seeing each other through the filter of these kinds of labels all the time.

Of course, this is a really difficult time in the world, with all kinds of violence, warfare, and other terrible things going on. So extending compassion toward all beings is very important. Compassion can actually overcome, transform, and heal every kind of harmful behavior or conduct.

But any label we put on another person, or on ourselves, places a limit or a barrier there. Compassion helps us have a genuine connection. It loosens those labels, and opens up new possibilities.

Compassion for Those Who Cause Harm

On one hand, extending compassion or generosity toward people who are causing harm is not that easy. But on the other hand, we very often misunderstand what it means to be compassionate, loving and kind.

For example, if you’re a parent, you love your child so much. And if the child is doing something wrong, your love and compassion will manifest in such a way that you stop them from doing those things that would cause harm to themselves or other people. That’s an aspect of compassion that is often misunderstood.

So first, we should try to stop people from engaging in harmful activities. That alone is a great kindness to them.

And then, we need to remember to never give up on anyone.

We need to see clearly that those who engage in hideous acts of violence, causing harm and pain to others, are usually not doing these things because they’re very intelligent, compassionate, and clear-minded. They are confused, full of internal conflicts and pain.

These are the beings who really need help, kindness, and support––in many situations, and in many ways. And one of the best ways to support such people is through education, to help them clarify their confusion, to show them how their actions are harmful not only to others, but to themselves.

So when you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is really difficult, you can start by being kind to yourself. You can recognize what you’re feeling about the situation. And then if you can, try to understand how it may look to them, and see if there’s a way to help. If there isn’t a way to help right now, there may be another chance in the future.

Being Kind When It Is Difficult: An Exercise

Like everything else, being kind takes practice. In especially tense situations, it isn’t always possible to have a positive outcome, and in any case, it’s always important to protect yourself from physical harm. But even when being around someone has been difficult, this contemplation can help you keep a sense of respect for yourself and for them.

1. Think of a difficult exchange you had with another person. Start small: choose a situation that was not violent, but in which you felt the other person was being unreasonable.

2. Imagine taking a deep breath, and taking a moment to be kind to yourself. You might say to yourself, “You are feeling upset right now. You deserve kindness as much as anyone else does. It is OK to feel hurt and disappointed.”

3. Take another deep breath. How does it feel to be patient and encouraging with yourself? Are you able to relax a little bit?

4.  As you connect with this sense of kindness toward yourself, can you think of a way to bring more patience and kindness into this difficult situation? Take your time. Consider a few possibilities.

5. If there doesn’t seem to be a way to have a positive impact on the situation, that’s all right. Maintain contact with the feeling of patience and self-encouragement, and then simply wish them well.

Sometimes it’s helpful just to remember that, deep down, everyone wants to be happy. No one really wants to be angry and miserable. Yet some may be trying to gain happiness in misguided ways that will cause harm to themselves or others. Seeing this, we can rouse our compassion for them as well as our desire to prevent harm where we can. We can begin by keeping a sense of kindness toward ourselves and toward others, even when it is difficult.