You know the feeling: that pit in your stomach when you have to deal with certain people, whether it be a friend, coworker, boss, or family member. If there’s someone you always dread interacting with, you might be in a toxic relationship. Difficult people are unavoidable in life, but how you handle them can make a big difference. Author and scientist Vanessa Van Edwards runs a human behavior lab called The Science of People and writes about how we can learn to better navigate social situations, and she’s shared her tips with us for mastering small talk and rocking a party when you’re an introvert. Her bestselling book Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People ($17) delves even deeper into how to use science to better understand human behavior. This time, Van Edwards suggests ways to handle challenging conversations with those people who really get under your skin.

1. Pinpoint your fears. We all have social fears — like being rejected, a person not liking you, or being criticized — but for each of us, these hang-ups are different based on our life experiences. Van Edwards thinks it’s important to recognize what triggers you in social situations. “When you interact with people, what are you afraid of?” asks Van Edwards. These “gremlins,” as she calls your social anxieties, force you into survival mode and make you feel anxious and act irrationally. For example, if a boss yelled at you, you might be afraid to speak with them about a raise because you’re afraid of being yelled at again. So your gremlin might be telling you, “Don’t talk to her.” However, Van Edwards wants you to understand that your gremlins are trying to keep you safe, but ultimately, they need to be recognized and accepted so you can move past your fears.

2. Figure out the other person’s fears. Van Edwards writes in her book Captivate that difficult people aren’t bad people. She believes that their fears put them in constant survival mode so they’re acting out of fear and without reason. If someone is driving you bonkers, ask yourself, “What is this person afraid of?” When talking with that person, listen to what “emotion words” they are using. “Emotion words,” writes Van Edwards, “indicate inner fears.” For example, if an annoying coworker says to you, “I’m so upset about the promotion at work! I’m so pissed I didn’t get it. It’s just so unfair,” the emotion words in their speech would be “upset,” “pissed,” and “unfair.”

3. Name the emotion. Now that you’ve figured out what emotion words they’re using, try to get to the root of their fear. Reflect back what you heard, like, “Not getting a promotion seems so unfair.” Then you might say, “Give me a sense of what you’re feeling.” If they’re not vocal about their emotions, try to distinguish what emotions you’re reading on their face.

4. Understand the feeling. Writes Van Edwards, “Once someone feels heard, their fear begins to disengage and you can deal with a more rational person.” The question to ask yourself once you’ve acknowledged their feelings is, “What is this person seeking?” Understanding what they truly want is helpful for working through their problems. Van Edwards suggests the phrase “Tell me what happened that made you feel this way” as an ice-breaker.

5. Transform the fear. Once you understand what’s driving this person’s behavior, then Van Edwards recommends asking, “What needs to happen for you to feel better?” This type of question allows the difficult person to name next steps. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they will take actions to resolve their issues, but it helps to defuse tense situations.

6. Say no to the wrong relationships. You’ll find that some toxic people have deep-seated fears that make them completely intolerable. Van Edwards writes, “Give yourself permission to say no to the toxic people who drain you. You deserve to interact on your terms, with people you like.” If you have trouble saying no to this person, Van Edwards recommends phrases such as “I’m so sorry I won’t be able to join” or “How wonderful of you to offer” as a gentle way to say no.

7. Set boundaries. If you have a hard time disengaging with a difficult person who tries to coax you into do something you don’t want to do, setting up boundaries is a healthy way to stop saying yes to what drives you nuts. If you hate large social gatherings, but your coworker insists that you come to her big birthday bash, you can say, “Sorry, I can’t make the party. Can I take you out to brunch tomorrow?” If it’s hard for you to share this in person, ask if you can check your calendar, then email or text your response so you can compose your words carefully.

What’s your best tip for dealing with difficult people? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know.

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(Featured photo via Getty)