"Those who are constantly at war with others are seldom at peace with themselves."
~ William Hazlitt

“Those who are constantly at war with others are seldom at peace with themselves.”
~ William Hazlitt

The Neuroscience of Difficult People

This is a quote I found quite a while ago, and I’m bringing it back because of the insight it can give us into the difficult people of the world. In other words, the more we know about why these people are so angry, defensive, and annoyed so much of the time, the more influence we can have on our own state of mind when we encounter them.

For those of you who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy, you know that much of their difficult behavior has to do with how their brain is processing information. In other words, when their middle brain (the limbic system) is interpreting any situation as a threat (and this can include any time someone disagrees with them or questions their judgement) it engages the lower brain (the brainstem) and triggers a fight-or-flight reaction.

For difficult people, this reaction is almost always “fight,” which manifests itself as anger, defensiveness, and a tendency to want to strike back, or be at “war” with almost everyone around them. And, as this week’s quote suggests, whenever these people are at war with others, they are seldom at peace with themselves. In fact, this means that they are often afraid that everyone is against them… afraid that people don’t respect them or value their opinion, and this fear continues to engage the lower 20% of the brain, which explains why so much of what they say doesn’t make sense. The truth is that the lower brain doesn’t “make sense”… it just reacts.

While this can be a problem, at times, when one of these people is a member of our family and/or organization, it can also be helpful in becoming more effective with them. In other words, if we are willing to see their negative behavior as coming from their fear (they are afraid we don’t like them, won’t listen to them, don’t respect them, etc.) we can see them as “frightened” versus “frightening,” or frightened versus annoying, and choose to respond from the clear, confident, creative part of who we are.

This might mean engaging them in a way where we are no longer triggered by their negative behavior, but instead seeing if we can get them to shift from the resistant brain to the receptive brain so that we can actually create more solution-focused conversations. Or, if they are someone we don’t know or who really aren’t important in our lives, we can simply go about our business without giving them a second thought (versus continuing to worry about their difficult behavior).

Of course, both of these options are easier said than done, and therefore, if you would like to become skilled at this process of dealing with difficult people, I suggest you pick up my “Life from the Top of the Mind” book or contact me about doing a presentation for your organization. Because, until we can truly understand the science behind their difficult behavior, our middle brain will tend to see them as someone we should be worried about, and trigger our anxiety, fear, or annoyance, and this will make them much more powerful in our lives than we want them to be.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill