• Navigating relationships can be challenging at times

  • There are many ways we can tackle the issues we might experience says author Jane McGregor PhD 

  • Many people find therapy useful for changing habits and patterns of behaviour. If you would like to talk to someone, you can find a therapist here

Do you have difficult family members, someone who doesn’t always make for good company? Take 45-year old Simon. He’s been married to Ali for 15 years, and though she loves him, she struggles to cope with his irritating ways. Why does he spend so many hours a day by himself, most often hidden away playing computer games? And when they do go out, he can’t seem to hold a proper conservation without getting flustered. She can’t stand the way he procrastinates all the time, and is irritable whenever she asks him to do things to help her out. She is fed up that, as she puts it, he behaves like a “right old grump!”

The situation has led to frustration on both sides and caused Simon – whose behaviour indicates he is low on the empathy spectrum – to withdraw because he feels relentlessly criticised. This article is for people like Simon and Ali, who find they are getting on each other’s nerves and feel they’ve reached a stalemate.

Due to recent research we are coming to realise how many people are affected by autism spectrum disorders. People with ASDs don't always show the appropriate emotions in response to other people's feelings. But they are often more affected by a situation than they appear to be – they just don't know how to express interest or concern appropriately. They often have a keen sense of morality and care deeply for others, though they don't always demonstrate empathy in the way society expects.

Strategies for improving communication

• Don’t make assumptions about what the other person is feeling. Ask them instead.

• Individuals who are ‘difficult’ can be highly sensitive to criticism because they’ve experienced, well…a lot of criticism! Constant criticism can lead not only to misunderstandings but lower self-esteem and self-confidence. So try not to constantly criticise.

• Ensure that you both take turns speaking and listening.

• If one individual can’t understand another’s feelings, compromise might be the best approach – ‘‘If we do it this way this time, next time you can have your way.’’

• If the person becomes readily defensive when you discuss things that are personal, it can help to write down your concerns in a straightforward way, perhaps in a letter or note, especially if deep feelings and complex issues are involved.

• Negotiate. If the person prefers to spend a fair bit of time alone and avoids social situations, try and take time to negotiate activities that they can do on their own, as well as with their friends and family.

Managing relations more effectively

Here are some ways for you to manage relations with the person you’re concerned about:

  1. Step back before you respond – your natural response to a person who is being ‘difficult’ may be a critical riposte. Trust that the other person does not mean to be difficult. Take time to think of your response, instead of reacting immediately. The more you can separate the behaviour from the person, the less likely is it that you’ll view their words or actions as a personal attack.

  2. Stop wishing they were different – the individual is not irritating on purpose. The best way to see a change in them is to change your own thinking and behaviour about them.

  3. Approach each interaction with an open mind – really listen to what the individual has to say and remain open to their viewpoint. When people feel your support they will be more willing to engage with you.

  4. Acknowledge differences in your points of view but don’t argue – an effective approach is to acknowledge their viewpoint and suggest that there may be more than one way to deal with the issue in question. This approach positions you as equal partners.

  5. Don’t be a difficult person yourself! It’s easy to identify someone else being difficult, but how often do you acknowledge that you can be difficult as well, especially when you feel stressed or tired? Recognise what triggers your own responses. Take responsibility for your actions and view yourself from the other person’s perspective so that you don’t become the person that others avoid.

Good communication can entail looking for humour in the situation, which is a great way to relieve stress. 

Listening is one of the most important aspects of effective communication. Successful listening means understanding not just the words being communicated, but also how the speaker feels about what they’re communicating. Good communication can entail looking for humour in the situation, which is a great way to relieve stress. Also if you realise that the other person cares much more about something than you do, compromise may be easier for you. Finally, sometimes it is necessary to agree to disagree – so take a quick break and move away from the situation.

Further reading

Understanding and managing family dynamics and difficulties

Relationship difficulties

Keeping the political peace with friends and family

Is empathy the last truly human quality?