Everyone’s got at least one in their life: a whiner, blamer, complainer or someone who makes life needlessly difficult for everyone else. In his book Talking to Crazy, Mark Goulston, MD, offers suggestions for navigating conversations with the people who complicate your life — not because they have a mental illness that requires treatment, but because their personality makes them plain tough to be around.
#1 Name the Suspects
Make a list of all the people in your life that you dread seeing or hearing from. You know these types because the mere sound of their name makes your stomach turn.
#2 Set Reasonable Expectations
When you prepare for a conversation with the person, don’t get your hopes up that they will suddenly behave differently than they always have. Be ready for aggravation, so they don’t catch you off guard.
#3 Figure Out What Drives the Behavior
Even if the difficult person in your life is directing their anger or frustration at you, don’t allow yourself to take it personally. “Have the patience to understand why people are the way they are,” says Dr. Goulston. “There’s something going on beneath the surface.” So rather than reacting, work to disarm them and then help them listen to reason and reveal what’s really bothering them.
Allow the person to vent so you can figure out what’s driving their behavior. When they finish talking, pause for a few seconds. If you listen attentively, without getting angry or allowing yourself to be provoked, you can dig deeper into the real issues.
#5 Practice FUDN.
FUDN stands for “frustrated, upset, disappointed, now what?” Dr. Goulston recommends using his FUDN technique to make a non-accusatory observation such as “You sound frustrated, whats that about?” “You start there because almost everyone will talk about what they’re frustrated about without getting defensive,” he advises.
Next, listen for cues. “The persons inflection (raising their voice), use of hyperbole like ‘horrendous,’ ‘awful’ or ‘unfair’, and their choice of adjectives and adverbs all have emotional juice on them,” says Dr. Goulston. “These cues show you what the person cares about.”
Then use a conversation deepener, such as “Tell me more about the awful thing” or “Really?” or “Hmmm.” You’re not on the defensive because you’re guiding the conversation and have a plan, and this allows them to express their feelings and start to calm down.
The second part of FUDN is “You sound upset, what’s that about?” Then follow up with conversation deepeners. Third comes “You seem disappointed, what’s that about?”
Let the person know that what they’ve told you is really important and you want to be sure you’ve got it right. Then repeat what they’ve described as frustrating, upsetting and disappointing and ask if you heard correctly. “What you’re doing is forcing them to listen to you, and listening is much slower than talking,” Dr. Goulston explains. “They can’t listen and vent at the same time.”
#6 Ask Now What?
Gently point out that all the things causing frustration, upset and disappointment happened in the past. The person has every right to feel frustrated, but now what? “Ask the person this: Going forward, what needs to happen so you don’t have to go back to feeling frustrated, upset or disappointed again?” says Dr. Goulston. The answer needs to be realistic, recognizing you can’t change other people.
What people like about Dr. Goulston’s approach is they can visualize every step of the process and feel more in control with the people in their lives who are out of control. You can’t change them, but you can understand them. And understanding opens the door to better communication and a healthier relationship.
In some cases, there may be more going on than you realize. Personality disorders, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders, if left untreated, can cause volatility in relationships and behaviors that are difficult to understand. The best way to support someone you care about is to encourage them to participate in therapy or a mental health treatment program. You can’t “cure” their mental health disorder but you can maintain an accepting and positive attitude, and continue listening and communicating clearly and honestly so you both can move forward.