Is connection possible with a “difficult person”?

How often do you feel so discouraged by someone’s actions that you think there is zero chance of you having or perhaps even wanting to have a sense of connection with that person?

When underwhelmed or overwhelmed at work,  disconnection can seem like a life saver. Yet, it also feels… painful inside, independently of the conduct of the person who stimulated you.

How is connection possible in such situation?

What obscures connection

On a good day, or in a more profound moment, it’s easy to see that you’re interconnected with life in others. No one can make it alone and how people are with you affects you every day.

When somebody’s actions match your needs, you feel good and grateful.

However, when someone does something that rattles you, intense emotions come up and insecurity obscures interdependence.

In intense moments, doesn’t it just seem that you’d be much safer and better off if you cut off from people or the particular someone? It’s such an understandable initial reaction. A hurt animal will hiss or hide too.

But humans can – innocently – prolong the state of self-protective isolation.  If insecure thoughts undermine connection, what helps to recover and restore the human link again?

Quicker recovery from pain

Here is a true story to illustrate how connection may be recovered. It happened with someone whom I experienced as very off-putting (whatever that means; judgment is sooo blunt!)

I was running a workshop to introduce people to NVC* and one person kept on saying things that – in my view then – were irrelevant and negative and therefore diminishing other participants’ learning. People were keen to discover as much as they could in the hours we had.

Was I feeling connected to that person? No! I  was fuming inside about their “negative impact on the group and my work”.

But luckily, I remembered the connection saving teaching of Marshall Rosenberg’s which I’d been struck by not so long before, to the effect of:

If you’re angry with somebody, it’s a sign that you haven’t heard THEM (only your thoughts about them).

Keys to recovering connection

These words and the fact that I simply didn’t have time to rev up my intense thoughts about my “trouble maker” while looking after the group, gave me a unique opportunity to reconnect with them quickly.

One moment I was frozen from inner intensity, the next I saw myself befriend “the enemy”.

I’ll never forget the surprise on that person’s face when, instead of ignoring or opposing them, I took time in the group to walk towards them with gentle curiosity and asked if I could hear more about their concerns during the break too.

That did the trick. One pause to hear them saved the group from ongoing disruption and – before the day was done – the “difficult participant” became my biggest fan.

Months later, someone came to another workshop of mine solely on the strength of the recommendation from my difficult-person-turn-new-friend. It was such an eye opener for me.

Reflecting on that “miracle” today, warm from memories of other times when Dr Rosenberg  saved me from counterproductive intensity, I want to remember three aspects of restoring connection with someone “difficult”.

1. No matter how bad a situation seems, connection can be restored within moments, provided you experienced a change of heart. (Note, I didn’t say “provided the person changes their behaviour” 😉

2. Initial negative impressions about somebody “difficult” seem true but aren’t. If you have an urge to dispute this point, thinking about a particularly difficult someone in your life, notice that you’re relating to your conclusions about that person instead of their reality.

3. No matter how “badly” somebody is signalling about their reality, if you pause your conclusions about them and visit their world**, you’ll find something beautiful and relevant.

A note on sensitive reconnection

Now, here’s a fun question to consider. Is it possible to connect with someone “impossible” if you’re naturally more sensitive?

Why would I wonder about sensitive people especially in this context?

A sensitive nervous system, by default, is highly responsive to stimuli.

In practical terms, it means it’s an “animal” that gets wounded more easily and experiences pain more acutely.

Human sensitive animal has also increased sense of care. He or she will try extra hard to take care of a situation.

The bad news here is that having extra inner intensity and then stressing to do the right thing can easily backfire when relating to a difficult someone.

It makes you busy with YOUR world at the time when the situation would be saved by being able to visit the other person’s world.**

The good news that takes care of the bad news above is that – because you care very deeply- you’re motivated to take time to learn how to relate more effectively.

Where other people might cope by, for example, assertively changing partners and perhaps not  learning what causes their pain in interactions,  sensitives are more likely to dig for understanding of what’s going on and what would work better.

Over time, this makes you a better and better partner, friend and relative.

In the meantime, this means that you have your relationship homework to take on.

If you want to be able to respond to difficult people with transformative love instead of suffering, you’ll investigate ways in which you can pause your conclusions and get curious about the other’s world.**

Come learn this with me or elsewhere, via NVC* 🙂



*NVC = Nonviolent Communication, developed by Dr Marshall Rosenberg.  It’s a big part of how I support people and I co-run periodical NVC days in Bristol.

** Warm thanks to Kirsten Kristensen who reminded me to pay attention to whose world I’m in at a time.