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Dealing with difficult people is important

May 17, 2009
By MATTHEW GOODEMOTE, For The Leader-Herald

I would like to take some time this week to offer a perspective on dealing with difficult people.

Specifically what I want to do is share some of the personal experiences that have helped shape my attitude towards handling difficult people and difficult situations so that I can do it more gracefully.

When I worked in Virginia, I had a patient named Doug. Doug was one of the most difficult patients I had ever treated. Doug had an excuse for everything.

He blamed everyone, except himself, for all his problems.

He was argumentative and very hard to be around. We can all find a person like Doug in our lives, someone who seems to know all the right buttons to push to upset us.

Back then, it was very easy for me to find fault with Doug. Pretty much everything he said was a complaint and his personality seemed to suck the life right out of the room.

I remember being very upset to the point of being argumentative and even confrontational.

At his initial evaluation, I was so upset I left the treatment room and went to talk to the surgeon I worked with, Dr. Grubb.

Dr. Grubb said something that has changed my life and certainly has changed how I treat my patients, especially the difficult ones.

He said, "Sometimes people are so difficult because they are in pain. Maybe no one has ever really listened to him, so he figures he has to be a jerk to get people to listen."

After this really sank in, I realized that could at least give him a chance to prove me wrong. So I went back to Doug and gave him the benefit of the doubt to see what would happen. After a few weeks, Doug began feeling better. As he felt better, his personality changed, too. He turned out to be one of the friendliest patients I have ever treated.

The initial incident with Doug was one of those moments in life that defines you as a person.

We all get moments like this and we have the opportunity to overlook the event, call it a coincidence, or be really honest with ourselves and see what lessons can be learned.

For me, the lessons I have learned give me perspective on what matters most in my life and directs me to understand myself better.

I genuinely search myself to see what I can learn about myself from this kind of an event. Sure, there are times when the event has no real significance behind it, but for me the investigation is worth the effort.

To me this is a major part of the process of finding wellness. It is the foundation of this building process because the more we learn about ourselves, the more likely we are to determine if how we treat ourselves and others is really because of what we believe matters most or if it is something we learned from our parents, teachers, coaches and society.

So often, we talk about how important it is to do good and to be good. However, our actions may prove us to be someone who talks a good game but when push comes to shove we would rather be pushing and shoving.

This event with my patient affected me so much that I tell this story during my staff meetings and when I meet one-on-one with my staff and patients. Doug left a lasting impression on me and this demonstrates how each and every event and person has a gift to give you; you just need to be open enough to receive it.

I routinely tell my staff my expectation that we welcome everyone who comes through the wellness center doors. We welcome and reach out to help everyone who comes as often as they are willing to reach back. My duty as a therapist is to help guide you back to wellness. The best way for me to do this is to meet you where you are not where I am.

Take a minute right now and stop everything you are doing. Take just one minute to consider what I am about to ask and please, just as an experiment, be totally honest with yourself.

Have you ever said or done anything mean to someone when you felt good inside?

Really take a minute to consider this. We only say or do mean things to someone else when we feel bad. When we feel good, we never do or say anything mean.

Now here's the rest of the picture. No one ever says or does anything mean to anyone unless they feel bad inside, too. This means that if someone says or does something mean, it is because they feel bad. The event that triggers it is neutral. How we interpret the event is based on how we feel.

Similar to pain, the more stressful our thoughts, the worse the experience is. When we are peaceful inside, pain is easier to experience. When we feel peaceful inside a stressful situation is easier to deal with. So now when someone like Doug comes into my clinic, I trust that they are in pain, either physically or emotionally, and it is my duty to avoid adding to the pain.

This applies to how we treat ourselves, too. If you really have peace inside you, you would never have the negative self-talk about the way you look, dress, feel, eat, talk, interact, etc. When we are peaceful inside, we don't physically harm ourselves either.

Really consider what this means.

When you are affected by what someone else says to you, it's because of what or how you think or feel. When people are cruel or try to manipulate, it is because they feel bad inside.

What a concept.

Now when someone, for that matter anyone - patient or sibling or stranger on the street - bothers me, I assume it is because they are having a bad day. I assume that it is not personal even though it may sound personal.

I examine my state and if I am feeling peaceful inside, there is nothing that can cause me to react to the situation in a stressful manner.

Because I assume that someone is hurting, I allow myself to step back and really meet them where they are. Instead of trying to convince someone that they should do what I want, I step back and really open up to the event. So not only do I give the other person the benefit of the doubt, I give myself a quick scan to make sure I am not upset also.

If what someone is saying or doing is bothering me, then I have to search inside myself to find out why.

Maybe it is me who feels bad, so my interpretation of what someone is saying is skewed. So instead of taking out my frustrations on someone else, I walk the walk and work on myself first so I can lead by example. Talk is cheap- walking the walk matters more.

When we realize that all people are only being mean because they feel bad, we can step back to see if we can help instead of hurt them. If we are really honest, we can also assume that the only person we can ever know for sure about is ourselves, so we can stop to examine how we are doing.

In general, when we feel bad we tend to hear what people are saying through a distorted perspective. We have all had the experience of overreacting to an insignificant event because we were feeling lousy.

For example, when you are in a bad mood you may snap at someone or ignore them altogether. We tend to justify our actions and expect forgiveness from the person, but when they are in a bad mood we automatically assume they are intentionally trying to "get us."

I am often known to say, "There are no problems, only situations." The events of our life are neutral. How we interpret them determines what we call them. Every event becomes an opportunity to discover the truth.

That is the key to wellness. When there is stress in your life, it is the opportunity to examine what it really going on to see if there is a pattern you have been following.

It is also the opportunity to see if you really like following the path you are on. In my own life, when I step back I realize how my thoughts are often misleading and with examination I find my path more clearly defined.

So when someone wrongs you and you know that the only possible way they would ever do such a thing is because they feel bad, you can step back and respond openly and honestly to the individual without attaching meaning to the event.

We do not have to get entangled in the web. We can choose the road to freedom instead and this road is paved with honesty and open-heartedness.

The more peaceful I am inside, the more difficult it becomes to treat someone poorly and for that matter to treat myself poorly.

This is the gift that a difficult situation can bring you. It can bring you understanding and that alone makes the situation worthwhile.

To me, wellness means being honest and open.

To do this we need to step back and really evaluate the situation, not from a manipulative perspective or a controlling perspective, but from an open and helpful perspective.

So now when I meet people like Doug, I am automatically open. I assume they are being difficult only because they don't feel good. So far this has proven true, but only 100 percent of the time.

This simple shift has allowed me to grow as a person.

This, in turn, has allowed me to be open to learn from every event in my life so that I can be the best I possibly can - which helps me understand that each and every person in my life comes offering a gift. Sometimes the gift is to receive and other times it is my chance to give.

Either way, the gift is the focus and true healing occurs.

Dealing with difficult people and events helps to reduce our stress and keep us focused on what mattes most, our wellness.

To me, this matters most of all. We get the opportunity to examine what we think of others and how we treat them and ourselves.

I have discovered that the true value of a life lies in the relationships we experience and for me, the more open I am to someone and the more patient I am, the better I feel. The process works both ways. When you feel good inside, it is contagious and people around you will eventually catch it.

So if you find yourself dealing with difficult people, the time has come to see if the difficulty is really in the other person. Perhaps it is within yourself where the difficulty lies, and you have the opportunity to turn that around.

When you focus on being open to give and receive, your life situation takes on a whole new meaning and you begin to really impact those around you. Your own health and wellness will flourish.

Matthew Goodemote, a Gloversville native, owns Community Physical Therapy & Wellness. His Health & Wellness column will answer your questions and discuss topics that are relevant to your everyday way of life. If you would like to ask a question, e-mail Matthew at



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