Changing Really Difficult People: Work on You, Not Them | Stage One

The real question is – are you prepared to do the work on your “self”?

If you are, there are three stages to the work. 1. Do the mindfulness. 2. Remind yourself it’s not personal. 3. Influencing skills – pacing and leading.

STAGE 1 – Do The Mindfulness

Throughout my thirty years as a Teacher and Leadership Coach, I have been privileged to hear hundreds of people’s stories about successfully changing what was a toxic, or seemingly impossible relationship. As I witnessed these stories, and from my own experiences, I am convinced the only way to change people’s behaviour is to change yourself. In psychology, we call it second order change. It requires you to stop doing more or less of the same and truly do something completely different.

It leads to a changed response in the other person. Whether you can change you, is in entirely within your control. Hoping other people will change is not.

In my work, I am a Change Agent. I primarily spend my days teaching leaders, teams, and individuals, some of the time honoured traditions that have always assisted people to move beyond merely surviving – to thriving. I am very interested in what works to change a difficult relationship, and I am very aware of what does not work.

I believe it is the nature of human beings to be difficult at times. It is perfectly common to use defences, ego, fear, to try to control others. It is particularly apparent when stressed, scared, or tired. We are all “neurotic” at times. People are not always in perfectly good shape, mentally or emotionally. They have patches of what I teach is “unhealthy functioning”.


The cycles and seasons of life will bring periods of winter. Losses and hurts are cycles we all experience. To survive, your ego defences are initially invoked. You survive, but don’t thrive if you stay asleep to the neurotic habits you are using.

Some people are seemingly addicted to their defensive functioning – like all addictions; it is hard to give up. I currently work with a client who is addicted to being offended. He has been asleep to his unconscious habit of looking for offence. Another finds it hard to give up being a victim. He finds persecutors all around him.

The way I teach it, if you want to get a different reaction and relationship with someone, there are three issues you must deal with within yourself.


Be aware of your own mind chatter. What is it that you are always telling yourself about this person or this situation? Get some detachment from your own mental scripts, and become unhooked from the “monkey mind” drama you are allowing your brain to run with.

Mindfulness is about calming down just enough to be able to witness your habitual thoughts and to gently unhook from them.

The human brain is wired to continually fire off thoughts. That is perfectly normal. When you were a child, to survive as a small human amongst adults and siblings, you developed your particular patterns of neuroendocrinal pathways in your brain and body. These habitual arousal’s and responses are a combination of your genetics and surroundings at that time. You did survive, but you are now capable of moving beyond this to thriving in your life.

Mindfulness is lessening the level of arousal in your brain so that you can become the observer, the peaceful self, the higher self, who is no longer so stressed and reactive to the mind’s chatter.

There are many ways to do mindfulness. The common ones involve taking a few breaths where you focus the “monkey mind” on the here and now. You simply pay attention to how breathing is taking place in your body and follow the breath.

Anything that focuses on the present, and calms you down slightly, will work. Many of us simply notice our feet on the floor, pay attention to our seat in the chair, the positioning of our back, or take a few seconds to notice the air temperature on our skin, the sounds we can hear moment by moment. It’s about getting grounded, centred, and more connected to your true self.

It’s this “self” that can observe the thoughts and judgements that the brain is doing. You have thoughts- but are not thoughts. You have the ability to observe your thoughts and judgements. By doing so, you are achieving some detachment from them. That’s how you become less “at the effect” of mind chatter – noticing and observing your thoughts.

When you realise your brain is thinking, practice simply noticing that. Then gently unhook from the thoughts, and go back to focussing on the present moment.

I recommend the book ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Dr Russ Harris. It’s a great companion as you learn mindfulness. Many of us have found it beautifully written, and just like having a personal coach beside you.

For Stage 2 of dealing with really difficult people, see the next blog entitled Remind yourself it’s not Personal. For Stage 3 see the following blog entitled Influencing Skills – Pacing and Leading.