In this article, I explore the essential mental tools for effectively dealing with snarky or hurtful individuals. These tools aim to disarm those who seek to emotionally manipulate you, leaving them puzzled when you don’t react as they expect.
Inspired by an email from a listener, I’ll dive into my own ‘communications toolbox,’ a set of strategies designed to facilitate empowering and non-confrontational conversations with negative people.
Build Your Communications Toolbox
The goal of my communications toolbox is to neutralize a manipulative or toxic person’s undue influence over you, not to disempower them. I’m hoping to help prevent them from making you feel bad or exerting control over you.
You deserve equality, where you can talk about anything on your mind without feeling bad. I think that’s a fair thing to ask for! You should expect kindness and respect, especially when you give it.
When you don’t get it back, and feel mistreated, disrespected, and even powerless, you need a plan. We never want to lose our power with anyone.
Some individuals, like narcissists, are particularly adept at stripping you of your power. However, with the right tools, you can safeguard your emotional well-being. Even these aren’t 100% effective because you can be conned into thinking someone is kind when they aren’t.
I thought about talking about this on my podcast about abusive relationships. But it applies more broadly than that. It’s not just abusive people. People can be snarky and offensive, wanting to poke at you and make you feel bad. It happens in abusive relationships and with everyday people too.
You might hear muttering behind you in line. What do you do then? I won’t give you all the answers, but I’ll give you some go-to thinking. Most people’s go-to is defensive or lashing out. That’s often unproductive.
A defensive response shifts the focus to justifying yourself, which is exactly where they want you—distracted from their own inappropriate behavior. Some people want you defensive so they don’t have to explain themselves.
Avoid statements like ‘I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I thought you wanted it this way. I’ll try harder.’ These are also defensive, as they involve you explaining yourself.
Then there’s lashing out: “How dare you blame me? You’re the one that does this!” That attacks back. But again, you’re focused on them, taking time to explain what they did wrong.
Any explaining keeps the focus off them. They don’t have to talk because you do all the talking. When you do that, they don’t have to do anything. They can watch you lose energy while they feel in control.
Some people prefer defensive responses, some offensive. But either way, you’re focused on explaining yourself instead of being focused on them.
You have the defense, offense, and lashing out responses. Lashing out is a mix of both – yelling, hitting, screaming. It’s like offense, but a quick knee-jerk reaction. I don’t have time to think, this just comes out.
While this approach may sometimes be effective, it often results in you losing your composure and depleting your energy. They have power because you seem irrational, especially if others see it. They look sane and you look insane or out of control.
The instigator appears rational and composed, using minimal effort to say a few words that trigger you. They know what words will push buttons. They want you to deplete energy so you can’t stay focused or sane.
If they succeed in making you appear irrational, that’s a form of gaslighting. You begin to doubt your own sanity. Afterward you think of what you should have said or done. You wish you handled it better. I always regret losing it on someone.
I should have been calmer or shown evidence instead of yelling. But I reacted without thinking. With some people, be proactive – carry your toolbox. Sometimes you react and your tools fall out, so you can’t access them.
Be prepared. Keep a set of pre-planned, calm responses for anticipated provocations. Not emotional responses, but calm, controlled ones. That can give you control. Respond stoically, without revealing emotions. They’ll be confused if your words don’t match your anger.
While some people can read your emotions without words, many others focus on your tone and body language to gauge your feelings. Be aware of body language but focus on your words. You’ll want to respond angrily but your words don’t need to match your feelings. The mismatch can confuse them because they expect your usual response.
They know your responses, so be aware of body language and words. But focus on your words – they don’t need to match your feelings. You may look angry but speak calmly. This mismatch confuses them because they expect your usual response.
What is your typical response? If it’s angry lashing out, that’s what they expect. So be proactive with your responses instead of just reacting. That way, when they try to upset you, you don’t fall into old patterns.
Create new patterns where you control the conversation. For those accustomed to belittling you, this new approach will be disorienting. The tables turn as their old tactics lose their effectiveness.
If you respond in an unexpected manner, especially when they think they know your triggers, it will throw them off balance. They rely on your reactions. Think of people who upset you intentionally – why react as expected? Don’t give them that pleasure.
When you do, you play their game and they control you. This is about taking your power back in hurtful interactions. It’s not about hurting them back.
I often compare difficult conversations to the principles of Tai Chi. When someone tries to verbally ‘punch’ you, sidestep their attack and let their words pass by you. Even guide it past you. Their energy has no landing. This depletes them, not you.
No resistance keeps your energy. Resistance spends energy. Sidestep verbal punches and they won’t want to fight anymore. Old behaviors fail. This concept matters more than the physical movements.
Resistance in communication is draining. By letting their negative energy pass by, you conserve your own energy while depleting theirs. Realize every resistance uses energy: explaining yourself, disbelief they said that, etc.
Consider how resistance in any form is exhausting. If there’s one takeaway, it’s to be mindful of your own resistance and the energy it consumes. You can feel drained depending on what you’re resisting.
When they realize their punches don’t land, they’ll either change their approach, which you must watch for, or become confused. Confusion tires and disorganizes them. They lose their plan and must figure out how to talk to you.
You make it difficult by not reacting as expected. But they bring it on themselves by trying to throw you off balance. If they were kind, there would be no reason to sidestep punches.
If they didn’t send negative energy, they wouldn’t self-sabotage. Hurtful people lose what they want because they try controlling it. They control people by keeping them defensive, offensive or reactive.
You don’t want to be in the state they put you in. Once out of it, they must choose – keep acting the same or try being kinder. You open the door for that choice.
Would you like some tools for verbal fights? They’ll help you not resist, change the outcome, make it manageable and less tiring. My goal is to get a new, productive outcome.
For example: Someone said my podcasts greatly helped their healing from a relationship breakdown. They have minimal contact with their ex, but he still makes snide remarks about their appearance.
One tool is handling objections before they come. Like a car salesman agreeing an expensive car is expensive before the customer says it. This builds trust by meeting them in their reality with no resistance.
How do you use this with long-time snide people? You step into their perception first. If they make a mean joke about your hair, laugh and say you’re having a bad hair day.
Agree first, align with their viewpoint, then redirect. This stops your natural resistance which would give them what they want. Don’t judge, defend or explain. Let their energy pass by.
Let’s say your ex makes mean comments about your appearance when you see them. What would you say without resistance?
If it was me, I’d agree first. “Oh yeah, this outfit again.” I don’t defend or explain. I catch them off guard and disarm their attempt to disempower me.
You may not want to agree your appearance is bad. But the point is to disarm them. When you say the unexpected, it’s a first step to stopping them taking your power.
Another strategy is to own it. For example, say, ‘I’ve had this shirt forever; it’s special to me.’ Avoid being defensive or judgmental, and let their negativity pass.
If they insult more, stay dispassionate with the gray rock technique. React like a dull, emotionless rock. Give little response – “Okay,” “If you say so.” Don’t react emotionally.
This drives them crazy because they want a reaction. No matter the insult, be nonresponsive. “You look like a dirty trash can in that ancient stained shirt!” Just say, “Yeah, you’re probably right.” Where’s the resistance?
“You’re probably right” stops their bullying because they feed on your reactions. It’s not about defending yourself or explaining. They’ll exploit that. It’s about disarming them.
Another tool is handling objections before they do. If you think they’ll insult your hair, say, “My hair’s a mess right, I know!” Now they can’t use it against you. Disarms their power.
Mention weaknesses yourself, and agree if they pile on. It’s not about truth – just disarming them. When you agree, they have no power to intimidate or bully.
These tools help with difficult people seeking to disempower you. Don’t give them reactions and instead be empowered and in control.
Kind people often wrongly blame themselves when mistreated. Typically the hurtful person causes the problems, not the kind one. The kind person doesn’t put others down.
If they lash out offensively, it’s usually after being hurt first. So they wrongly look irrational. That’s why I suggest these tools – to avoid defensive reactions that can look bad.
Some comments may hurt so deeply you want to defend yourself and explain it was their fault. But resisting creates arguments. Use the other tools instead – sigh, “whatever”, no resistance.
The more you explain, the more it can be used against you. Be careful talking much with those wanting to hurt you. Long explanations give them emotional buttons to push.
She said her ex in dreams called her a poor person and blamed her for harming him and his kids. I treated it as real since dreams can be traumatic.
Just hearing his name makes her nauseous – a PTSD sign. Her kids mention him and she struggles to not react so they stay “normal”.
PTSD means something unresolved and unhealed. Try visualization – picture him there and let emotions flow. Anger, sadness, anything. Self-validate your feelings.
Do anything to him in your mind – yell, scream, punch. It’s your mind so no judgment. You need closure and your emotions need expression.
Keep doing it until the pressure releases. Talk to a counselor too, but this adds an emotional outlet in a safe space. Express what you’ve wanted to say. It relieves the pressure so triggers bother you less later.
The pressure and PTSD may not instantly disappear but this helps. When you see him again, the same pressure won’t be there. You might even chuckle about what you did to him in your mind.
If the PTSD is bad, definitely see a professional. But if you already are, this gives an extra tool to relieve the pressure and lessen the PTSD over time.
I did this visualization with my abusive stepdad. In my mind I punched and killed him until he no longer bothered me. It doesn’t mean I wanted him literally dead. I just needed to express my emotions so the pressure didn’t keep building.
Doing this took the power away. Later when I pictured him, he didn’t affect me the same. I didn’t need to kill him but expressing those feelings was important. I didn’t want that harm, just an outlet for my emotions and closure.
It really helped heal me. Maybe it can help you too. Visualizing allows safe expression. The emotions come out so triggers bother you less later. Keep doing it until the pressure releases.
Seeing a professional is vital if the PTSD is severe. But if you are already seeing one, visualization is an added outlet to relieve pressure in a safe space.
Improving the Most Important Tool in your Toolbox
Prioritizing self-improvement is crucial. The woman who wrote to me said that she has wonderful kids and has a great relationship with them. She also has a patient man who is waiting for her to be ready for a new relationship.
Bring your best self into a relationship, not your dysfunctions that can be draining another person.
I used to cling in relationships, relying on them heavily. My neediness drew their love and kindness out, but drained them because it never ended.
I took more than they had to give until they felt less loving and eventually wanted distance from me. Someone can fall out of love with you because you’ve drained their good parts.
I brought dysfunction into my marriage and drew (drained) out from her what I lacked in myself. She got depressed without knowing why. I was taking from her. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
When you “draw” from someone else, they feel drained and want to get away. Bring your best self into relationships. The woman who wrote to me is getting her ducks in a row first. That is an excellent step to take.
She struggles with nights of anxiety when her kids are with her controlling ex. Understandable, but kids are brilliant. They’ll see the truth about him. She needs to remember to defend herself less, and ask her kids questions.
To the woman who wrote to me, if he tells them lies about you, don’t convince them otherwise. Just say “Do you think that’s true?” Show trust in them to decide. They’ll likely ask you questions. Simply answer simply without trying to convince them of anything.
Kids are smart. Don’t over-explain. Let them ask questions – that empowers them. One who questions feels trustworthy. One who tries to convince seems untrustworthy, like the dad trying to convince the kids that mom is bad.
Kids realize one parent constantly spins stories while the other trusts their judgment. That matters. You may not get far the first conversation but over time the child smartens up about who’s truthful.
So when your ex tells the kids lies about you, don’t get angry or try to convince them otherwise. Just ask “Do you think that’s true?” Show trust in them to decide.
They’ll likely start asking you questions instead of just accepting what they’re told. Answer simply, without trying to convince. Kids are brilliant, they’ll figure it out.
I understand your anxiety if he was a bad father. But most kids are resilient even through a lot of toxicity at home. Many with abusive or narcissistic parents survive and recover.
If he was only bad to you, he may be a great dad. We have to consider that. Or see positives, like providing well, despite not being the best person.
Allow your kids to feel empowered to assess the truth themselves. They’ll ask you questions if you don’t over-explain. Give them the real truth when they ask. Kids are smart, they’ll grow up and learn what’s real.
The key is using helpful strategies and making them daily habits. But don’t stay in victim mode, dwelling on the past too long. That’s obsession – listen to my episodes on it to move forward.
Obsessing means the happiness stopped back then and all you feel now is the negative emotions from those events. Make peace through self-forgiveness for not handling it better.
You didn’t have the same tools and resources back then. Now you do. Forgive yourself, realize you can’t change the past, and work on moving on. It takes time but you can do it.
Sometimes, healing from past trauma and PTSD is essential. Once you address these issues, you can move forward and regain your well-being. It takes work but keep taking steps in the right direction. Build momentum like a snowball rolling downhill, until you are unstoppable.
Today’s tools can accompany my episode and eBook “How to Deal With Irrational People.” Having options for non-heated conversations improves life.
You don’t have to repeat the same toxic interactions. This is especially useful with family you can’t avoid. Respond with “you’re probably right” or “I’ll consider that” instead of resistance.
I used to resist my mom’s view I was selfish not to have kids. Better to say “Good point, I’ll think about that.” It ends the discussion without argument. Years later she told me she’s glad I didn’t have kids. People can improve.
Don’t show resistance. Make them feel listened to and understood. You may never appease them but family should love you anyway, even with disagreements. We should still support each other across political lines.
Imagine a family dynamic free from political conflict. Employ these tools to create a harmonious environment, akin to practicing Tai Chi in your conversations—let their negative energy pass without affecting you.
Here’s a list of key takeaways, summarizing the tools for dealing with difficult people:
- Disarm Manipulators: Don’t react as they expect; keep them puzzled.
- Be Proactive, Not Reactive: Plan your responses in advance to avoid falling into old patterns.
- Own It: Agree with their viewpoint first, then redirect the conversation.
- Gray Rock Technique: Respond with minimal emotion to disarm their attempts at manipulation.
- Pre-Handle Objections: Mention potential criticisms before they do to disarm them.
- Avoid Defensive Responses: Statements like “I didn’t mean to” keeps the focus on you, not them.
- Sidestep Verbal Punches: Let their negative energy pass by you, conserving your own energy.
- Be Mindful of Resistance: Any form of resistance is draining; be aware of your own.
- Empower Your Kids: Trust them to make their own judgments, but ask them questions.
- Visualization for Emotional Outlet: Use mental scenarios to express suppressed emotions safely.
- Work on Self-Improvement: Bring your best self into relationships.
- Avoid Victim Mode: Don’t dwell on the past; use your new tools to move forward.
- Non-Heated Conversations: Use phrases like “you’re probably right” or “I’ll consider that” to avoid conflict.
I hope this helps you stay empowered.