• Try as we might, some people just get under our skin and we find it difficult to communicate with them

  • Dr Patapia Tzotzoli offers 7 practical ways you can improve your relationships, even with challenging people

Perhaps it's a family member, a friend, a colleague or just someone we occasionally meet but without fail when we meet them there is something about how they speak or carry themselves, or something in our interaction with them, that never fails to trigger us. This affects how we relate with them at the time and we are ultimately left with negative emotions that can range from stress and sadness to anger, guilt, and self-pity. It usually takes a while to process these emotions and during this time we are likely to lash out on someone else or even to ourselves before we manage to regain our balance and move on with our lives. Until the next time we meet them of course.

There are some deep-rooted reasons this is happening to us repeatedly and working with a psychologist can bring to the surface a lot of new information that can help us with our insight and understanding of ourselves. 

In this article though, I’d like to focus on a few evidence-based techniques that we can adopt when we are being triggered by an encounter. This can effectively ease any negative feelings and perhaps even make the interaction less disturbing and, why not, more constructive.

1. Emotional agility 

We usually act impulsively on our unpleasant emotions by trying to change them. For example, when we feel uncomfortable in someone's presence, we tend to avoid eye contact or withdraw from the conversation. This reaction can be irrespective of whether the other person did something to cause it or not. 

This reaction leads to disconnection and harms the relationship. Instead, we can consciously focus on our feelings and use them as information carriers that bring us a message. This simple realisation has the power to help us stop reacting on impulse and instead take a step back and decide how to act according to our values and goals.

“I notice that I avoid looking at X because I feel uncomfortable with him right now. I do value my relationships with other people though. I also want to work on being more open to people who are different than me and right now is a great opportunity for me to practice this.’ 


2. Self-acceptance

Our relationship with ourselves affects our relationships with others. Having the courage to look at ourselves and accept ourselves “just the way we are”, with all our positive or negative attributes, is an invaluable healing act. By acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses we work towards a more honest and authentic relationship with ourselves as we embrace every aspect of our personality and abilities without arrogance or shame.

As a result, our tolerance towards ourselves and our performance when with others both improve, and our symptoms of anxiety or depression before or after these interactions reduce. By simply allowing ourselves to be as we are during any interaction with others gives us permission to free ourselves of our own or other people’s expectations. Therefore, working on our self-acceptance is key to changing the quality of our relationships with other people as we handle interactions from a secure position.

“I am who I am and I am good enough just the way I am. I do not need to be more or less of anything. I have strengths and I have weaknesses just everyone else and this does not make me more or less worthy than anyone else.” 


3. Self-compassion

Relationships can be challenging, and we will all get triggered by someone at some point which might cause us to feel uncomfortable emotions (e.g.: shame, guilt, stress, sadness, frustration) and even led us to act unfavourably (e.g.: blame, shout, criticise ourselves). 

It is important when this happens to turn back to ourselves as soon as we become aware that we have been triggered. This “coming home” move gives us the opportunity to look after ourselves by showing ourselves kindness and reminding ourselves we can choose to act in a way that is more aligned to our values.

“I notice that I feel […] and want to do/did […] because of what X did or said. I am not perfect, I am human – just like everyone else and this is/was not a good behavioural choice. I do get things right in this relationship though and I remain worthy regardless of this incident. All I can do is to show up again for X tomorrow and try to be more [e.g. open-minded, self-confident, respectful, friendly, etc]." 

4. Psychoeducation

Reading and learning about human behaviour, the impact of past experiences and the effects of current triggers can open a whole new perspective. When we realise that people’s behaviour is intrinsically linked with difficult experiences they endured growing up and current triggers activate their unresolved trauma(s), it can explain a lot about how and what they are talking about, as well as to how they behave. 

Reminding ourselves that we are all – knowingly or not – suffering, and we are all fallible human beings can help us activate our empathy so we can be more understanding towards others and eventually respond to them in a more supportive and collaborative way.

“X carries his past within him, and this is reflected in the imperfect things he is saying or doing. We are all imperfect human beings with different degrees of self-understanding.” 

5. Acceptance

Working towards acknowledging and allowing present relationships to be as they are, creates space for both sides to be, without the need to change. Recognising a situation for what it is, even if it is accompanied by uncomfortable emotions, without protesting about it or attempting to change it, is a liberating act that eventually can impact the nature of our relationship with other people.

“X is a fellow human, no more important or less than me or others and he is allowed to have different beliefs and opinions. We are all at different parts in our life journey and what we have experienced and learned differs. This is not wrong and one is not better than the other; it just is what it is.” 

6. Gratitude

Everyone is giving us something that we can view as positive. Tapping into our moral emotion of gratitude can help us feel more satisfied with our relationships, and make us more open and responsive.

 “X does […]  for me and is what I need because it helps me to […]. I am grateful for this, and I do appreciate it.”  

7. Forgiveness

There are relationships that have hurt us in the past that are still present in our lives. If we decide to keep these relationships in our life it is important to work on forgiveness so that both us and them can be protected from maladaptive coping mechanisms (e.g.: blaming, avoidance, people pleasing, etc) that we may inadvertently or not implement. This way we can give the relationship a healthier base to exist or even grow from. 

“X has hurt me. X was wrong for doing so. I do not have to forget, excuse, or accept the harm done and I do not have to make up with X if that is not what I want. I choose though to free myself from expectations and unrealistic wishes regarding what X could or should have done instead and admit that X did what he did to me indeed. I also acknowledge who I am and my power to choose how to address our relationship now and in the future.”

The above techniques that are summarised in these template phrases can be used alone or in any combination depending on the situation we are facing and our relationship with the other person.

Dr Patapia Tzotzoli is a verified Welldoing psychologist in West London and online 


Further reading

3 things we can do right now to improve our relationships

Can we agree to disagree? Tips to improve online communication

How to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour

How unconscious forces drive our behaviour at work

4 tips to start setting boundaries if you're scared of saying no