Joyce Marter Presentation At The Legacy Project Conference: How To Deal With Difficult People

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All right, good morning. My name is Paulina Martinez, and I am part of the Planning Committee for the Legacy Conference. Here with me is Joyce Marter.

Joyce Marter is a licensed clinical professional counselor who has been providing therapy for individuals, couples, and families since 1998. She deals with issues related to mental health, addiction, relationships, and personal and professional development. Joyce is the founder of Urban Balance, a counseling practice she started in 2004, which grew to over a hundred therapists working from nine locations during her 13-year tenure as CEO. She was awarded the Distinguished Alumni of the Year in 2008 by the Family Institute at Northwestern University and was selected by Crain’s Chicago Business for the 40 Under 40 list in 2010.

Currently, Joyce is the Vice President of Marketing and PR for Refresh Mental Health, a company that owns and operates outpatient mental health practices throughout the United States. She is the Chair-Elect of the Midwest Region of the American Counseling Association, the immediate past-president of the Illinois Counseling Association, and a two-term past president of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association. With a passion for applying psychology to business, Joyce is a public speaker for corporations, universities, and counseling organizations. She is a blogger for Psych Central and the Huffington Post and is currently developing a book. Joyce is routinely consulted as a psychological expert in the media and has been featured in such outlets as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, CNN, and MTV.

Please join me in welcoming Joyce Marter.

Thank you so much, Paulina. Thank you. I’m so sorry that bio was so long; I was feeling embarrassed having you all listen to that. Good morning, and thank you so much for being here. As Paulina said, I’m a therapist and a business owner. Over the past 20 years, I have become passionate about conflict resolution because we all need it personally and professionally. Difficult people are part of our lives—they might be in our families, they might be our partner, sister, boss, coworker, neighbor, or in our friend group. Today, I’m honored to speak with you and share what I’ve learned from 20 years of counseling clients to help you navigate these challenging personality types so that you have some tools in your toolbox and your feathers might not get as ruffled. Dealing with difficult people takes energy out of us.

I believe feelings are waves of energy that we experience in the body. Consider those toxic people you know. I had a girlfriend that I would meet for brunch every few months, and I realized that every time I came home, I had to take Advil because it was a toxic relationship. It was not a mutual or reciprocal friendship—she was venting to me, and I was absorbing it and getting a headache. We need to be aware of how difficult people affect our feelings and how we experience those in the body. We can learn how to manage those feelings of frustration or irritation, which are a normal human response. If someone upsets us, it’s normal to feel those emotions, but we can manage them in a way that best serves us and keeps us healthy and well.

Difficult people also affect our thinking. They can cause our thinking to become negative, almost like an infection, and we can start to look at them with judgment and become angry. In therapy, we talk about cognitive behavioral therapy, which suggests that our thoughts precede our emotions and behaviors. If we can change our thinking, we can change our feelings and behaviors. Today, we’ll give you some tools to do that. Our behaviors are when we get hooked by a negative person and become reactive. We might become defensive, make excuses, argue, or pick up our side of the rope in a tug-of-war, which can lead to conflict. We will discuss how to handle these situations.

Who exactly are these difficult people? They might be people under stress. We all experience stress at different points in our lives. I was with my 13-year-old daughter at the doctor’s the other day, and they said, “Oh, we’re sorry, the paperwork you submitted online just disappeared. It was a glitch. We need you to fill it out again.” I sat there for 20 minutes, filled it out, and they said, “Oh, it disappeared again.” I became a difficult person because I was upset and under stress with many things going on. Did I behave my best? No. Am I a mental health professional and middle-aged person? Yes. It’s kind of embarrassing, but we’re human, and we don’t always act perfectly. Sometimes people are under stress and not behaving well in the moment.

As a mental health professional, I believe we all have mental health issues, just like we have physical health issues. We all deal with anxiety, depression, stress, relationship issues, grief—it’s just part of being human. It doesn’t mean we’re crazy or in crisis; we’re just people doing our best. We need to consider that difficult people may be dealing with serious mental health issues like depression or substance abuse. Addiction affects many people. One out of ten of us has a problem with drugs or alcohol, and one out of seven has someone we love who has a problem. Addiction can also be to gambling, porn, sex, or shopping. Trauma survivors may have coping skills and ways of operating in the world affected by their experiences. We need to have compassion and understand that not everyone has had the same experiences as we have.

Sometimes people are in challenging phases of life. I mentioned my 13-year-old daughter; I also have a 17-year-old, so I have many opportunities to deal with difficult people. Different phases of life come with different stresses and issues. We must recognize that we can all be difficult people at times. The other day, I was feeling morally superior because I don’t have road rage. Then it occurred to me—it’s probably because I cause it! We need self-awareness and humility. Everyone has their stuff; we’re all works in progress. It’s about being conscious of that and also compassionate.

When dealing with conflict, understand your role. An event is always neutral; it just is what it is. Our thinking makes it positive or negative. Be aware of your perceptions, thoughts, assumptions, and biases, including cultural biases. We all have biases, and we need to be mindful of them. Take responsibility for your response in situations. You can’t control other people—their responses, behaviors, or actions. You can only control yourself. Focus on bettering yourself to be more skilled at dealing with difficult people.

Whenever there’s conflict, there’s an outcome. Recently, I had an event with this PowerPoint presentation. I hired a talented graphic designer who said she’d have it ready by the 13th. On the 11th, she emailed, saying she couldn’t get it to me until the 20th, which was after the conference. I panicked and wanted to respond harshly. Thankfully, I took a pause and wrote a diplomatic email. She responded that I misunderstood; she was talking about something else. Thankfully, I didn’t send a hot response that would have damaged our relationship. Pausing before you respond can help.

Consider what you don’t know. You don’t know what people are going through. I remember when I was 28, I lost my father. A couple of days later, my mother suggested we rent a movie.

This was back in the days of Blockbuster. I remember having a little conflict with the video guy, and it was because I wasn’t in a good space. I was grieving, crabby, angry, and sad. He didn’t know that, but he was still really nice to me. We have the choice to be kind to people when they’re not in a good space and to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may be going through something we don’t know about. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. They may have other stressors, less support, or different emotional or relational skills than you have. Just being compassionate about that and grateful that you are who you are allows you to respond differently.

Trauma history is something in my work with clients that I have deep compassion for because many people live with trauma in all different forms. It might be abuse in their family of origin or some other experience they went through. Recognizing that trauma shapes and molds people into who they are is important. I really believe our emotions are a normal response to our nature and nurture. While it may seem sometimes that people are over-responding, it’s often because whatever that event is, it’s tapping into a well of feelings they have from old stuff, and it’s all coming out. It may seem disproportionate to the event, but it’s a normal response to their own unique history. Keep that in mind.

I am empowering you to develop your emotional intelligence. Clearly, you all are successful people. You’re here at the Legacy Project, and you’ve learned some of these things, but I think that we’re all works in progress, and we can continue to develop these skills. Knowing your own emotions is crucial. How many of you meditate? Wonderful. I’d like all of you to give it a try. There’s an app called Headspace if you don’t know how to meditate, and another one called Calm. Meditation is like rebooting your mind, body, and spirit. It just clears your operating system so that you don’t have all those windows open and feel stressed. It helps you become aware and mindful of the feelings you have in your body.

I practice yoga and am currently going through yoga teacher training. Yoga is actually meditation with movement. By practicing yoga, you can become more aware of where you’re holding energy in your body. We all hold stress, anxiety, worry, and tension. Becoming aware of how we’re experiencing that gives us emotional intelligence because we understand when we’re triggered and when we’re not in a good space. Then, we can learn how to take pause and respond differently.

Managing your emotions is also key. We have a responsibility to be our best selves, and again, we’re all works in progress. I believe that for those of us who are parents, modeling is the most effective form of parenting. Our kids learn from us how we manage conflict and relationships, so the best way to teach them is to set a good example. Learning how to manage our emotions so that we respond in a way that’s kind, compassionate, and diplomatic is essential.

Motivating yourself to deal with difficult people or conflict in a way that leads to resolution and growth is important. I always say that conflict or stress is an opportunity to learn new skills. I love the expression, “Come wind, help my roots grow strong.” Did you know that trees need the wind to grow their roots? For us, dealing with difficult people can cause us to grow. I think about an old boss who was really difficult. She micromanaged and put me down at every chance. She would tell me I didn’t look right, write right, or speak right. It was really upsetting and demoralizing. I wish I had the skills I have today when I was dealing with her in my 20s. Interestingly, I ended up leaving that job because it was not a healthy environment for me, and I’m so grateful for her because if she hadn’t been that way, I might have stayed. I would have never started my own business, which grew to over a hundred therapists. That’s pretty amazing. Sometimes the universe puts difficult people in our path to redirect us or help us learn the skills we need.

We also need to recognize and consider other people’s emotions. In counseling, empathy is the magic wand of the relationship between the therapist and the client. Empathy is a magic wand we can all use in our lives. It’s the ability to express to someone that you understand how they feel. When I was in college, I hosted at the Cheesecake Factory in downtown Chicago in the John Hancock Center. The manager put me in the line with all the people who were upset because their wait time was way beyond what they were told. They were told it would be 20 minutes, but it was an hour and a half. I was practicing my empathy skills, so I would say, “I’m so sorry. I understand you’re upset. Of course, you’re frustrated.” People’s anger becomes diffused when they feel heard. Sometimes people get louder if they’re not feeling heard. You might not agree with their responses, but you can reflect that you understand where they’re coming from, which will defuse their anger.

Managing relationships and the emotions of others is vital. As my business developed, I learned that managing my leadership team was one of the most important skills. They were my greatest resource—very talented people whom I wanted to stay in the organization. They didn’t always see eye to eye with each other or with me. My main job became managing those relationships so that everyone felt heard, I could draw upon their strengths, and I could defuse any conflicts. This was really important for the success of our organization. I can only imagine how important that is in government. This is a skill you all can continue to develop.

Low emotional intelligence (EQ) is when we get emotionally triggered and aren’t our best selves. It might include being aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive. Assertiveness is what we want to strive for. When people have low emotional intelligence, they might scapegoat, gossip, blame others, or engage in low-energy behavior. We all do this from time to time, so just be aware of it. Notice if you’re participating in these things because while it may feel like healthy venting, it’s actually bringing you down. Organizations are like family systems where each part of the machine affects the whole. If one person is negative, it infects the whole organization. Be mindful of your role and notice when others are behaving that way. If someone is gossiping to you, you can say, “I like her,” or, “I’m sorry she’s going through that hard situation. I wish her well,” and cut it short. Just don’t participate in that.

High emotional intelligence is low insecurity. It’s when you honor your strengths, confidence, and talents, and respect yourself. Hang on to your confidence—that’s really important. High emotional intelligence also reflects high openness. Be open to other people and other ways of doing things. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who isn’t really listening to you? That can lead to conflict. Be open to hearing others and considering other points of view. Diversity is always a strength. We’re smarter together than any one of us is by ourselves. Being open to other ways of looking at things is emotionally intelligent.

We’ll talk more about assertive behavior, but that is the key to success in business and life. It’s the ability to find your voice and speak your truth in a way that’s honest, direct, clear, and respectful of yourself and the other person. This can really defuse conflicts. High emotional intelligence is when you’re self-aware, recognize your own role in things, and consider how you might be contributing to the conflict in some way. You also want to be inclusive and respectful.

When communicating with people, the first step is to understand them. Listen and use reflective listening skills. Are you looking at your phone or computer while listening to someone? Look at them, their face, their body language. Really listen to what they’re saying and reflect that understanding with empathy by responding to what you’ve heard. Restate what you’ve heard, like, “What I understand is you’d like me to come on time,” so you express understanding. Notice when your emotional brain has been triggered. This is all from a book on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman. If you’re looking to improve your emotional intelligence, I encourage you to check it out.

Learn to observe your process and notice how others are responding to you. Are they shutting down, becoming escalated, or feeling open and collaborative with you? Facilitate positive collaboration. If you’re having challenges in a conflict, take a pause, regroup, and revisit it at a different time. If a meeting isn’t going well, restate what’s going on and suggest taking some time to think about it and talk again tomorrow. Regroup, maybe get some advice from a colleague or friend on how to better deal with the situation. Seek help and re-engage when you’re not triggered.

John Gottman, a brilliant psychologist and leading researcher on marriages and couples relationships, has identified four things that lead to relationship meltdown. It’s important to recognize them when we do them and when others do them. The first one is criticism. In any situation, it’s fine to express if we don’t like a specific behavior, but we don’t want to attack the person. Criticism is when we attack the person. Contempt, which includes eye-rolling or making dismissive noises, is another. Criticism and contempt are more common among women. The last two things are more common among men, but we can all do them.

It’s not very nice, and it makes people mad. Being aware of when you’re engaging in these kinds of behaviors is important. Stonewalling, when someone shuts down, can be very infuriating, as can defensiveness and making excuses. We could all save each other a lot of time by learning how not to be defensive and by taking responsibility for ourselves.

Continuing to work on these things is essential. People have different conflict styles; some are passive, while others are aggressive. I always say that healthy self-esteem is midway between a diva and a doormat. A diva feels entitled and disrespects others’ boundaries, while a doormat disrespects their own boundaries. The diplomat, who is respectful of both themselves and others, sits in the middle.

There are difficult personality types we encounter, such as the know-it-all expert, the bully, the procrastinator, the whiner, and the silent type. Know-it-all experts are often narcissists, compensating for their low self-esteem by acting arrogant and grandiose. They need to be right all the time, which can be very challenging.

I once had lunch with an attorney who specialized in helping women who have divorced narcissists. Her approach was to make them right by agreeing with their demands in a way that revealed their impracticality. For instance, if they demanded 50/50 custody but planned to move to Florida, she would agree and then outline the impossible logistics of frequent travel.

In dealing with narcissists, it helps to recognize their importance early on to prevent them from feeling the need to assert it constantly. Realistic expectations are also crucial since narcissists lack empathy.

It’s important to consider the power differential in relationships when dealing with difficult people. For instance, handling a know-it-all who is your boss differs from handling one who is your child. Setting boundaries and maintaining diplomacy are key.

Bullies often have a trauma history, so viewing them through a compassionate lens can be helpful. Protect your energy by imagining a barrier, such as a shield of plexiglass, between you and the toxic person. Maintain your confidence and professionalism when dealing with bullies. Use “I” statements to express how their behavior affects you without attacking them personally.

Procrastinators can be frustrating. They’re often perfectionists. Encouraging them to focus on progress and partnering with them can help. Communicate regularly and give positive feedback to keep them on track.

Whiners take up a lot of time. Show empathy and set time limits for their complaints. Help them determine what they really want and guide them out of a victim mentality.

Silent types can be passive or passive-aggressive. Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to talk. Use a silent, friendly stare to prompt them to share more. Comment on the process and how you’re feeling to encourage openness.

Avoid the fight, flight, or freeze response in conflict. Use mindfulness to pause and respond appropriately. Avoid engaging in a tug-of-war, as this leads to conflict. Understand the root issue rather than focusing on the minutia. Get rooted in the present and be flexible and adaptable.

Forgiveness is crucial in interactions with difficult people. It frees you from anger and resentment, which can make you sick, depressed, or anxious. Forgive yourself as well and make amends when necessary.

For more resources on dealing with difficult people, text my name to 345345. Cloud and Townsend offer great materials on setting healthy boundaries. Follow me on social media for inspirational quotes and to stay connected. If you or someone you know is interested in counseling, therapy, or workshops, please reach out. Thank you so much for your time.

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