How to talk to someone you can’t stand

Dealing with braggarts, boors and the rest.

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Matthew’s boss was inept and utterly irritating. As a way of starting conversations, the guy would ask if something he had just requested was finished yet. Then he’d laugh. Making matters worse, Matthew, a program manager at a software company, had to walk past his boss many times in a typical day –a recipe for daily discomfort, if not outright conflict.

Matthew was a client of Dr. Srini Pillay, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and chief executive of the Neurobusinessgroup, a consultancy that uses insights from the field of neuroscience to improve communications within organizations. Pillay came up with two survival tactics to avoid confrontation and ease Matthew’s pain.

The first, a kind of pre-emptive strike, involved sprinkling timely, innocuous compliments. “Nice shoes, Bill,” Matthew would say. Or, “Thanks for the memo, Bill, it was really helpful.” When spreading sweetness and light grew tiresome, Matthew would look for a third person or subject about which the two could find easy agreement: sports, music, food, even politics.

“Matthew was able to stop his boss in his tracks and derail him long enough to avoid listening to him,” says Pillay “Without those strategies, he would not have been able to last at the company.”

Face it
Some people are simply insufferable. With any luck, they can be avoided, but not always. So what do you do when there’s just no escape?

“Behave as though you are handling a poisonous snake,” says Dr. Richard Pomerance, a Boston psychotherapist who has counseled executives at Harvard, Cisco and American Express on handling thorny personalities. “Survival is the most important goal.”

Your job isn’t the only thing on the line. “Getting angry is like taking a small dose of slow-acting poison,” says Redford Williams, professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Williams has spent over 20 years studying the impact of the mind and emotions on health. His conclusion: Anger leads to higher blood pressure, arterial damage and the stimulation of cholesterol-filled fat cells to empty into the bloodstream.

With survival in mind, here are a handful of time-tested conversational strategies for dealing with people you can’t stand.

Indulge them (if only a little)
The last thing you want from a name-dropping coworker is an account of his latest personal conquest. One coping strategy, care of Christopher Groscurth, an instructional consultant at the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in interpersonal communication: Bypass the painful chitchat by steering the conversation to project goals and how the person’s golden Rolodex could help your cause. Groscurth did just that with one particularly annoying colleague. “Ultimately, this gave him what he wanted — space to talk about himself — while sparing me from his indulgence,” he says.

Massage the bruise
There is always a reason people are disagreeable: insecurity, the poor-me syndrome, general selfishness — the list of foibles goes on. In many cases, you don’t need a degree in psychology to zero in on the problem. Insecure people are some of the easiest to suss out. One classic trademark: They tend to turn into jerks when challenged. You can’t live in fear of these meltdowns, but you can ease their intensity by stroking the person’s ego a little more during those rare moments when they get something right. It’s disingenuous and annoying, perhaps, but ultimately worth it.

Control what you can
In most encounters, you can choose to escalate conflict or keep things civil. “The only response that you have control over is your own,” says Groscurth. Humor helps. So does a positive attitude. When dealing with a Debbie-Downer type, for example, try spinning their complaints into questions: “That situation sounds tough, but what can you do to turn it around?”

Look for the good
Surely the person you can’t stand has some redeeming quality. Find it and focus on it all the way through the conversation, even it’s just a physical feature or nice piece of clothing, advises Dr. Kathleen Hall, chief executive of The Stress Institute, a mental-health consultancy that works with corporations and nonprofit organizations. “For example, if you you’re talking to a person who is incredibly rude, but she has good hair, just think about the pretty hair, smile, say what you need to say and move on with your day,” she says.

Find common ground
Perhaps the person you can’t stand is also a parent, a fan of the same team or an alumnus of the same school. “Focusing on what you have in common gives you more positive feelings toward them, as well as something connecting to talk about,” says David Levin, author of Don’t Just Talk, Be Heard!

Empathize (even if it means making stuff up)
As with all noxious substances, toxic people should be handled with care. Difficult (and disconcerting) as it may seem, try to imagine that you were born in their similar uncomfortable circumstances. Or even go the extra step and imagine that they’ve been told, that very morning, by the one person they love, that it’s all over. Who cares if it’s true? The fictional scenario will reduce the level of toxicity in your body — and that’s what counts.

Avoid blame
People who are particularly difficult often seek to rationalize their actions. They don’t want to be the bad guy, so therefore you must have provoked them. This tendency is called cognitive resonance: our nearly obsessive desire to appear consistent with what we have already done. With that in mind, avoid assigning blame to the blighter at all costs. Instead of saying, “You kind of screwed this one up,” go with “Here’s what would really help save the day.”

Let them save face
So the insistent boor won’t back down, even though (you both know) his argument is somewhere between specious and laughable. Asking him to “reconsider” — implying that he had made a mistake — is asking for trouble. Instead, present a new dilemma based on new information and ask for his decision. That way, he can save face without admitting his mistake.

Plan a quick exit
Always go into these conversations with a plan. Know what you want to achieve during the talk and have an exit strategy once the mission is accomplished. “I’m waiting for an important phone call” or “I’m hoping to catch a client before they head out” work well. Plan for contingencies, too, says Vlad Zachary, founder of CareerConceptZ.com, which offers resources and strategies for job interviews, “be prepared to cut your losses and move on to something more enjoyable — or at least more manageable.”