How should you deal with difficult people?

Woman saying farewell to emigrant.
Joseph Brodsky never saw his partner again after being expelled from Russia.

How should you deal with people who try to make life miserable for you?


The Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky had some simple but really good advice on how to deal with negative people who make trouble for others. Before relating that advice, it’s best to consider Brodsky’s backstory and the terrible injustices he had to endure.


In 1962, the 22-year-old Brodsky met and fell in love with an artist, Marina, but it was not a case of them living happily ever after. The authorities didn’t approve of Brodsky’s writings and did everything in their power to silence him. When he was 23, Brodsky was twice put in a mental institution and then arrested before being sentenced to five years hard labour in the Arctic. Protests by influential cultural figures helped secure an early release but Brodsky continued to be persecuted by the authorities. Marina, who gave birth to Brodsky’s son in 1967, was threatened by the authorities and prevented from marrying him. In 1972, government officials broke into Brodsky’s apartment, told him he was being expelled from the country and put him on a plane to Vienna.


Brodsky did not see his son again until after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, two decades later. He continued to write about Marina in his poetry but never saw her again.



Traffic lights.
Don't linger on your foes; treat them as yellow, not red lights.

In 1988, Brodsky addressed graduating students at the University of Michigan. In his speech, he offered up a few life lessons, including his thoughts on how to deal with those who seek to make your life difficult. “Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible”, he said.


“Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists”, he said. “What your foes do derives its significance or consequence from the way you react. Therefore, rush through or past them as though they were yellow and not red lights. Don’t linger on them mentally or verbally... This way you’ll spare your brain cells a lot of useless agitation”.


It’s not so much the event that matters; it’s the echo from the event that counts. “Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur.”


It’s not easy to follow this advice. Many people will have experienced deep hardship at the hands of others and it can be difficult to move on. As humans, we are hardwired to hate unfairness, which can lead to an inclination to stew on old injustices – especially if you have, as Brodsky puts it, a “receptive” audience willing to repeatedly listen to your tales of woe.



Ruminating on old injustices can stop you from moving forward.

Nevertheless, its worth making the effort. Much of the time, we ruminate on people who aren’t really important in our lives – the difficult work colleague, the pushy boss, the nosy neighbour, the sarcastic relative. Brodsky suggests we “rush through or past them as though they were yellow and not red lights”, but we often do the opposite. This is especially the case when there’s not enough going on in your days; when your days are full, when you’re excited by the present or the future and living a life in line with your values and aspirations, you’re much more likely to brush off old wrongs and to focus on moving forward.


One of the main premises of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is that we are disturbed primarily not by things, but by the view that we take of them. That doesn’t mean we pretend it’s sunny when it’s raining, but it is a reminder that we can choose how we respond to negative people and events. As Brodsky put it, it’s the echo that counts; try to still or steal the echo.