Nobody enjoys dealing with a difficult or toxic person. You could avoid rude, annoying, or disagreeable people in an ideal world. But certain situations call for communicating with people you don’t like. Rather than being rude or avoidant, you can mindfully approach the conversation with poise and charisma.
Whether at a work meeting, family gathering, or networking event, use these 14 proven tips to stay polite and professional while dealing with a problematic person.
14 Tips for Talking to People You Dislike
The most successful people have mastered the art of handling unlikable personalities in social situations. While it may require swallowing a few comments or bearing the brunt of bad jokes, making the most of challenging conversations can make you look more professional and socially skilled.
Here are 14 science-backed ways to deal with someone you can’t stand.
1. Use a light conversation starter
You know that feeling when you’re suddenly stuck standing next to someone you don’t want to talk to… but you can’t be rude to them because you have to preserve your social reputation with the company, family, or friend group? Yeah, it’s agonizing.
Thankfully, you can quickly bypass the awkward silence with an easy conversation starter. Try asking:
- How’s that [food/drink/appetizer]?
- Have you read anything this year that you liked or recommend?
- I just tried ____ for the first time, and I loved it. Have you ever tried that?
- Watching any good Netflix shows lately?
- Got any exciting vacations coming up?
- How did you meet [your mutual connection]?
The key here is to keep it positive and lighthearted. Nobody wants to disagree with a co-worker or friend of a friend at a social event! Keep your conversations lowkey and casual by avoiding anything that might trigger your differences.
Don’t talk about:
- Problems at work
- Relationship issues
- Health issues
- Controversial hobbies
- Strong opinions
Keeping things positive will help prevent the conversation from going the wrong way.
Here are 30 Conversation Starters for People You Don’t Like for more.
2. Keep your hands visible
There is a reason people put their hands up when they want to display innocence. Showing your palms is a universal sign of peace and can make you seem more trustworthy.
Keep your body language open when talking to someone you dislike. It’s best to have your arms uncrossed and your palms visible. Closed arms can show that you are closed off or defensive, while an open posture ensures that you don’t look “on guard” or uncomfortable. After all, you would prefer to be the relaxed, calm one in the conversation with your nemesis, right?
3. Let them do the talking
It’s no secret that “me” is everyone’s favorite conversation topic. People love talking about themselves because it triggers the same parts of their brain as food, drugs, and sex. While it may be annoying, you can escape awkward silences or controversial topics by simply asking questions about the other person and letting them ramble on.
Social scientists have found that asking questions makes you more likable, which can be useful if this is someone you really need to get along with (we’re looking at you, your spouse’s annoying brother or boss’s rude wife).
You can smile and nod as they talk about their lives and opinions. This is also an opportunity to practice your active listening skills and mentally check your body language.
4. Practice active listening
Although the sound of their voice could make your blood boil, it can benefit you to listen to what they say. Actively engaging in the conversation shows that you are kind, cordial, and/or professional.
Use these three easy active listening cues in your next awkward interaction:
- Nods: Subtle nods are a key nonverbal cue that shows you actively listen to what someone is saying. Slowly nod your head 3 times to show you’re interested (even if you’re not).
- Eye contact: In general, you should look at someone for 70% of the time while they are speaking. Hold eye contact for 3-5 seconds at a time and then gaze away as you listen. Darting your eyes can make you seem nervous and uninterested.
- Loud listening: Listening sounds like “oh,” “ah,” “wow,” or “mhm,” demonstrate that you are engaged as they talk.
5. Ask them for advice
It may seem weird to ask someone you don’t like for advice, but this unlikely trick builds rapport in a secret way.
Most know-it-alls and talkaholics love sharing their opinion!
In her groundbreaking book Captivate, Vanessa Van Edwards discusses a study where they found that asking someone for advice makes you likable. This allows them to feel important and knowledgeable.
Dodge stiff or uncomfortable moments with these simple advice-seeking questions:
- I was wondering if I could get your opinion on [the latest iPhone/a new book/movie/equipment/any topic they seem interested in]?
- Have you tried any new restaurants lately?
- Could you help me/give me advice on [project]?
- Do you have any recommendations for [vacation destination/activity]?
Don’t worry; there is no need to take their advice.
6. Find common ground between you
Psychologists have found that our desire for like-minded people is hardwired in our brains. If you can find similarities with someone you don’t like, it can take some strain off your interactions.
Focus on similar interests or a shared link between you, such as:
- A mutual friend
- A family connection
- A similar colleague
- A project you are both working on
- A similar hobby
You can say, “Hey, Joe! How is Rebecca doing?” or, “Your girlfriend (my bestie) seems like she loves her new job; what do you think about it?”
Focusing on your similarities allows you to both talk about something you care about without having to talk about each other. It’s a win-win!
7. Put on a genuine smile with this trick
You can spot people’s facial expressions in an unenjoyable conversation from a mile away. As both people try to look normal, their facial muscles tighten, their jaw is clenched, and everything looks forced. Their eyes might not be engaged with the smile and the look of false joy can quickly come and go.
You probably know this feeling of plastering a fake smile on your face while you try to talk nicely to someone you don’t like.
A fake smile can do more harm than good when talking with someone disagreeable. But a real smile is scientifically proven to make you appear more trustworthy and attractive.
Thankfully, this simple trick can make your smile look more genuine:
- Think of something joyful: What is something that will make you grin every single time you think about it? When you’re in a crunch to fake a smile, think about a hilarious memory with your friend or an adorable moment with your kid. This thought will instantly make your smile look more authentic. Plan the thought ahead of time so you can keep it in your back pocket when it comes time to smile politely.
- Take your time: The “savor smile” technique allows your grin to slowly emerge over the course of a half second or more. If a smile quickly flashes across your face and then disappears, it can look faker.
- Use your eyes: The biggest differentiator between a real smile and a fake one is the engagement of your eye muscles. A real “Duchenne” smile includes a slight squint that causes “crows foot” wrinkles around the eyes. A fake smile may only use the mouth.
Before your next office party or family gathering, take note of these 9 Simple Tips to Smile Better (in any situation!)
8. If they won’t budge, ask this magical question
Sometimes difficult people won’t even try to be nice. They’ll give you one word answers to your conversation starters and do everything in their power to make the interaction even more miserable. You just can’t seem to crack them open!
But this magic question can finally get them to open up about something they enjoy:
“What’s something you love that you could talk about for hours?”
This is your golden ticket to avoid any future awkward conversations.
Why? Because now, whenever you see this person, you can ask about the topic they actually like. BINGO! No more tiptoeing around topics or forcing small talk. You can simply listen to them talk about their favorite thing.
9. Fake interest with this body language hack
Body language is the secret sauce to making an uncomfortable conversation more bearable. It can make you appear nicer and more professional, putting you at ease.
Sure, you can ask follow-up questions about someone’s interest. But your body language can be a dead giveaway that you don’t actually care what they’re talking about.
Crossed arms and facing away from someone can send “foe” signals that basically say, “I don’t like you/I don’t care/I’m nervous/I’m uncomfortable.” On the other hand, friendly cues say, “I’m calm and interested in what you have to say.”
Even if you can’t stand the person you are talking to, you can fake your interest with this hack:
Keep your torso and toes facing them!
A foot or torso towards the door indicates: “I’m ready to escape this conversation as soon as possible.” But if you keep your feet facing the other person, it shows you are calmly listening and present in the moment.
10. Set a timer as an excuse to leave
Do you ever wish someone would come tap you on the shoulder and “save” you from a horrible conversation? This trick sets you up for success by giving you an instant excuse to leave.
Before you talk to someone you don’t like (but still have to interact with), set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes. When the alarm goes off, glance at your phone and say, “Oh I have to get going! Great to see you!” and you can happily ride off into the sunset!
11. Get the upper hand with this strategy
Ultimately, the “winners” in tense social interactions are the people who can play it cool, stay polite, and regulate their emotions. If someone knows your triggers, they may prod at you and try to annoy you even more. Even worse, they could try to make you look bad in front of your mutual connection or try to get you to openly insult them.
Don’t let this person “win” by losing your composure. Instead, practice deep box breathing before or during the conversation to calm your nerves and feel more clear-headed. This practice comes from an ancient yogic practice called pranayama. Studies repeatedly show that deep breathing reduces stress and anxiety.
To do box breathing:
- Slowly inhale through your nose on a count of 5.
- Hold your breath at the top for a count of 5.
- Gradually exhale through your nose on another count of 5.
- Hold the breath outside your mouth for a count of 5.
- Repeat for 3-5 rounds of breath or until your body feels less stressed.
12. Ask yourself why you’re talking to them
When you repeatedly find yourself forcing conversations with someone you don’t like, it may be time to pause and ask yourself:
Why am I talking to this person I can’t stand?
Often, there is a really good reason:
- They are a friend of a friend, and you don’t want to be rude.
- They are a colleague you have to maintain a relationship with at work.
- You don’t want to have “beef” with a family member at every holiday get-together.
- They are your significant other’s, college friend.
- They are your best friend’s latest crush, and you want to be supportive.
- You need to maintain a professional relationship with a client or customer.
These are clearly valid justifications for enduring troublesome interactions. Knowing your “why” helps you approach the situation with a goal in mind.
For example, if your primary motivation is to maintain a good professional relationship, you will want to remain respectful and cordial without diving into any personal matters. If your goal is to make family reunions more bearable, you may legitimately try to learn about the person and find a similarity between you.
But when you can’t think of any reason to talk to them other than “I feel obligated to,” it may be time to simply dodge the conversation altogether.
13. Politely avoid conversation
If none of the reasoning from above actually justifies interacting with this irksome individual, it’s time to employ the avoidance tactics. Yes, you can politely avoid conversation using the exact opposite body language tactics described above.
Show that you don’t want to talk by:
- Avoiding eye contact.
- Facing your toes toward the door.
- Facing your torso away from the person.
- Look at your phone or watch as if you have an important notification.
- Giving a nice wave and then walking the other way.
- Flashing a short smile and turning to talk to another person.
More often than not, people will intuitively know that you aren’t interested in talking to them. If they don’t pick up on your cues, you can always directly tell them, “Apologies, I have to go,” and book it out of the situation.
14. Remove fake friends from your life
If you really can’t stand talking to someone, see what you can do to get them out of your life completely. Nobody needs added stress from emotionally-taxing relationships! Toxic friendships drain your energy and ultimately leave you with less energy for the people that actually matter.
Some key signs of a toxic friendship include:
- Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells” and overthinking everything you say.
- You have more differences than similarities.
- You have nothing in common anymore.
- You only hear from them when they need help from you.
If this sounds familiar, it may be time to politely get this person out of your life. Reference this guide about Why Fake Friends are Ruining You and How to End a Friendship.
Key Takeaways: Use Social Cues to Interact with Difficult People
Although it can be emotionally exhausting, sometimes you have to “fake it till you make it” with people who drive you crazy. Luckily, you can become a socially skilled master at handling difficult personalities with these tips:
- Focus on them: Let them lead the conversation by asking questions about them and actively listening. See if you can get them talking about something they’re really passionate about by asking, “What is one thing you love that you could talk about for hours?”
- Find commonalities: If you have a shared connection or similar job, emphasize your similarities rather than differences.
- Use body language: Use open body language (like visible palms, torso facing them, and eye contact) to show that you’re likable and interested in the conversation. Then, when it’s time to leave, shift your body language to exit the conversation (turn away, cross your arms, or avoid eye contact).
- Set a timer: Save yourself from an hour long conversation with a Negative Nancy by pre-setting a timer on your phone that you can use as an excuse to escape.
While we all wish we could avoid difficult people altogether, sometimes these interactions are essential for maintaining our other social connections.
Learn more about the 4 Types of Difficult People and How to Deal With Them. If you’re having trouble dealing with difficult people at work, check out this webinar.