Nice ways to deal with mean people

Dealing with mean people is a fact of life that is often unpleasant and is something many of us would prefer to avoid. These not-so-nice folks can be varying degrees of nasty, ranging from prickly to semi-cranky, to straight up grumpy and ornery in either work, life, or both. Mean people can be passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, or loud, confrontational, and in your face. 

Whatever the case, you have to come up with effective ways to address a personality conflict and to co-exist with a mean person, ultimately preventing them from ruining your day or interfering with your ability to function as a happy, productive human being. 

Here are a variety of nice ways to deal with mean people, that can lessen or diffuse the mean-ness.

Swap negativity for positivity

Rather than let someone else's nastiness consume you, especially after you've had an unsavory interaction with them, Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, recommends making a daily gratitude list so that you substitute their negative energy for your own positive thoughts and vibes. Yes, it's that simple. 

Hershenson suggests writing down ten things you are grateful for. "Anything from your family, to legs to walk on, or to reality TV," she tells me. "Focusing on what is good in your life as opposed to what the mean person said or did today helps relieve anxiety around the situation." Rattling off positives is a brilliant, easy way to keep the other person's negativity at bay.

Focus on what you can control

You should think closely about the situation that has you dealing with a mean person. Then, Hershenson encourages making another list, this time focusing on the interaction with that person and the elements that you can control. This will allow you to diffuse things on your end, rather than lead to a confrontation. "Make a list of what you can't control regarding your situation. For example — the mean person is your co-worker. Focus on what you can control to make change and accept what you cannot control." 

Since you can't just lash out at someone who's mistreating you, request a meeting with your boss and present this list. That could help release the pressure valve on the situation without you looking like you're pointing fingers, or being overly dramatic.

There's an app for that

There is an app for everything in life. Remi Alli, a J.D. with a master's degree in health law, explains to me that coming to an agreement with a disagreeable person, helps prevent a tense situation from escalating and becoming untenable. 

That's why she created Brāv, an online platform that assists in dealing with all sorts of conflict management. Everything in life can be conducted digitally these days, and there's no reason that conflict resolution can't be done via a digital support system. There are plenty of options on Brāv that can be customized to suit your needs. 

Breathe mindfully

Inhaling and exhaling methodically are essential when dealing with mean people, according to Dr. Meredith Sagan, a holistic psychiatrist. "Mean people have a tendency to trigger our fight or flight response," she tells me. "It's natural to want to be mean back. In order to stay cool in an uncool situation, breathe more slowly than you would normally do. When we are in panic mode, our breath speeds up. If you want to get in control and out of panic, slow your breath down."

The concentrated, physical response to a psychological provocation will help you approach the situation better. "You will notice that the slower and deeper you breathe, the calmer your mind and body will become," Sagan continues. "If you fight back, you'll need to deal with the fallout later. Stay stress-free by breathing slower and move away quicker from the volatile person and watch it work every time!"

Kill 'em with kindness

Even if it "kills" you to have to do it, kill the mean person with kindness… albeit generic kindness. If you react to their anger or rudeness, you will only make it worse. "The adage of getting more flies with honey is quite true," Dr. Kristen Nielsen Donnelly of Abbey Research Group tells me. "In the midst of an interaction with a mean person, kindnesses are the best courses of action."

All you have to do is keep your cool and don't be mean back. Nielsen Donnelly furthers, "Outside of direct interactions, setting emotional boundaries so that you only give as much of yourself to that person as necessary, is the best course of action. For instance, mean people are not generally trustworthy, and thus you do not owe them your personal self." So be nice, yet not too invested.

Call them out on it

Being aware of what type of mean person you are dealing with and letting them know you are aware of what they are doing will better equip you to deal with it. Beth VanStory of consulting firm, Thinkout, notes that mean people are like ice cream, but not as… fun. "Mean people come in several different flavors. Some people are intentionally mean. This person knows exactly what they are doing, yet they may not know why. Often, their meanness comes from a place of insecurity or jealousy. In short, they are attempting to put down the other person to make themselves feel better." 

Once you assess the mean "type," VanStory encourages being direct. She says, "An effective way of dealing with this type of person is to let them know that you recognize what they are doing. If they disagree, simply say, 'This is not a discussion or a negotiation about whether you are being mean. I'm telling you that I feel you are being mean.'"

Zig when they zag

VanStory also reminds us that some mean people can be hotheads who raise their voice when trying to make a point. "This individual is often looking for a fight," she explains. "They expect you to engage in the same way they engage. The most effective way to deal with this person is to zig when they zag. That is, stay calm. If they normally are a somewhat rational person, let them finish their rant. Then take a breath, and in a very calm voice, look them in the eye and say, 'Listen to yourself. You are sounding crazy.' If they are indeed rational, they will be embarrassed, apologize, and drop it."

Another zig-zag strategy is to walk away. Van Story once told a boss who was berating her that "if you'd like to lower your tone of voice, I'd be happy to continue our conversation. However, I have too much pride in myself to sit here and be treated like this."

You don't need to simply tolerate mean people by stooping to their level. Let them know you don't agree with their methods, and take the high road.

Know when to fold 'em

Mean people can feel endlessly frustrating. Most of the time, they want to get a rise out of you or use their nastiness to leverage themselves. But rather than scream, yell, or stoop to their level, you can make like Kenny Rogers in "The Gambler" and know when to fold 'em. Realize when it's best to just bail, especially when you know you're never going to get a resolution. Executive coach Debra Bentonsays the most simple way of dealing with mean people is, "Smile. Ignore. Walk away. Repeat." 

This is a low key way to deal with a high stress interaction, but it's also very effective. You can leave the situation with your head held high and with no shame over how you handled it.

Be the change

One of Ghandi's most famous sayings is, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." You can apply that sentiment when dealing with nasty people. Rather than being passively kind, you can show that you really do care about what is making this person so unpleasant.

"If you've ever encountered a mean salesperson or co-worker, then you know it's easy to be turned off immediately by their behavior," says Weena Cullins, M.S., a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship therapist. "However, taking the time to ask, 'How's your day going?' or 'Are you okay?' is an extremely effective way to disarm someone whose bad attitude is currently on autopilot. It's rare for people to fight meanness with concern, so don't be surprised if they seem a bit disoriented by your question. Take the time to listen and offer a word of encouragement. You might just turn their mood around."

Think about yourself

Having an end game is another of Cullins' recommendations. "If you are forced to deal with a mean person on a consistent basis, it's a good idea to prepare yourself by asking the following question: 'How do I want to feel after my interaction with this person?'" 

If you usually come away feeling beaten down, or experiencing pangs of regret because you didn't address things — like your own needs — differently, then you need to consider your future responses. "Plan to say or do something differently that will help you to feel good about the way you handled yourself," Cullins says. "Sometimes the nicest way to handle chronically mean people is to be nice to yourself. This means protecting your self-esteem, your mood, or even the trajectory of your day."

Don't get caught in the cycle

Dr. Fran Walfish, a leading couples, relationship, and family psychologist, and author in Beverly Hills, who was on clinical staff in the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 15 years, points out that most mean people are usually caught in a vicious cycle, having been the victim of mistreatment at some point and are thus further perpetuating it. 

Walfish believes you have to identify and accept when you can't do anything to change the experience with a mean person. "Bottom line: a good friend is nice to you consistently and with continuity," Walfish says. "If someone is 'hot and cold,' or sometimes nice and sometimes mean, then they are not a good friend. Run for the hills! You can certainly try saying, 'That's not a friendly way to speak to me, can you modify what you just said?' But people do not change their internal character structure. You can't change a mean person."

Don't be afraid to let go when you have to.

Set your boundaries

If you have no choice and are forced to deal with a mean person because of work or other commitments or obligations and walking away is not even close to being an option, then you have to create reasonable boundaries in order to co-exist. Walfish says, "Behave cordially, but don't allow the mean person to get too close." 

That consists of keeping conversations short and to the point, keeping your cool, and just addressing the matters at hand and nothing more. Be the bigger person, but make sure boundaries are in place. 

Keep your enemies closer

Alison Blackman, author of six books about relationships and communication and who runs a his-and-her advice website, offers a twist on the "keep your friends close, but enemies closer" concept. She tells me, "If someone is a mean person and you can't avoid them, mirror the opposite of what they are. Be as nice, polite, considerate, and pleasant as you can muster and limit your interaction as much as possible."

This requires you to go out of your way a little. She finishes, "As much as it makes you want to gag, say something nice about them where it is genuine, like, 'That's a beautiful necklace you are wearing' or 'I really liked what you said at the meeting today.' Chances are they will stare with hostility or say something nasty. Smile as if you didn't hear it. The fact that you weren't nasty to them will still register somewhere deep in their dark souls." 

Or maybe, they'll even realize the errors of their ways, and apologize.

Let them vent

Rebecca Edelberg of Alosa Health recommends letting a mean person vent — within reason. Being a sounding board and allowing them to get stuff off their chest can be the very thing that allows them to flip their mean switch off. "Oftentimes, mean people are stressed out people who have not had the opportunity to blow off steam about whatever is bothering them," she tells me. "Letting someone get it all out is the easiest thing in the world for you — all you have to do is listen — and it makes that person feel about 100 times better."

Once the pressure valve has been released, you can "watch how quickly the mean-ness evaporates," according to Edelberg. A bonus is that the mean person might remember how you offered your ear, causing them to be appreciative and careful not to be mean to you in the future.

Laugh about it

As cliche as it sounds, a hearty laugh during a noxious situation is actually the best medicine, as long as you're not laughing in the mean person's face. It's merely another way for you to blow off some steam and keep calm. Edelberg says, "Have you ever been in a situation where someone is so rude that their behavior is actually comical? I have, and while I try to keep my cool in the moment, I am secretly thinking about how I'll tell this story to family and friends later."

So employ that thinking and action to help you get through having to deal with difficult people. 

You do you

Dealing with mean people is a part of every day life. You have to amend your behavior, walk on eggshells, and try to be considerate of the mean person's feelings when, oftentimes, you just want to flip them off. But cooler heads prevail. Try kindness. Set boundaries. Attempt to diffuse the situation and make it better. Work to improve your repeated, or even future interactions with a mean person. 

When all else falls, call in a mediator. You shouldn't be existing in avoidance or flight mode because someone else is disagreeable.

But always, always, remember to consider yourself, your wellbeing, and your professional or personal environment. You have to be fair to yourself when interacting with a bullish or brutish person. You may be a kind soul, but you don't deserve to take any unnecessary heat from anyone else.