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Lawrence E. Kincade, Ph.D., LCSW > Faulty Thinking That Can Contribute to Our Impressions of People as "Difficult"

  • All-or-nothing thinking:  You see things in "black and white" categories only.  If something is not perfect, then it is a disaster by default.  You have difficulty recognizing the "gray areas." When dealing with difficult people, you may have problems seeing their "good side" or giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Overgeneralization:  You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words like "always" or "never."  You may have one negative interaction with someone and over generalize it to the point that you have "pegged" that person as impossible to deal with.
  • Mental filter:  You pick out a single negative detail and dwell solely on that, ignoring anything positive that may contradict it.  For example, someone you know is actually a nice person with one particular habit that annoys you.  Instead of benefiting from their good qualities, you see the relationship as negative because of your choice to focus on their annoying habit instead.
  • Discounting the positive:  You reject positive experiences by insisting they don't count.  If someone who usually irritates you actually doesn't irritate you one day, you tell yourself that it must be a fluke and continue to focus on their annoying qualities.
  • Mind-reading:  Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. You then continue to respond to that person as if they "have it in for you," thus creating a difficult relationship that is based on false assumptions.
  • Fortune telling:  You predict things will turn out badly.  You assume the worst about someone and go into interactions with them already convinced that it will go horribly.
  • Magnification:  You exaggerate the importance of someone's shortcomings and minimize their desirable qualities.
  • Emotional reasoning:  You assume that your negative reaction to someone accurately reflects the way they really are.  If someone annoys you, then they must be annoying.  If someone creates feelings of anger in you, then you assume they must be a cruel and negative person, without considering that your emotional reaction could have nothing to do with them and everything to do with you.
  • "Should statements":  You tell yourself that someone "should" act differently.  "He shouldn't be so stubborn and argumentative."  Should statements lead to frustration and anger, because they set up a false expectation.  Just because we think something "should" happen doesn't mean it will.  Life isn't always fair that way.
  • Labeling:  This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking.  Instead of separating a negative quality from the person, you lable the whole person.  "He's a loser" or "She's a jerk."  This leaves little room for improvement since you are labeling someone's character, not just the behavior.
  • Personalization and blame:  You blame others for your problems and overlook things you may be doing yourself that are contributing.  "My performance review was so low because she's making my job so hard to do."


To Change Your Thinking ...


  • Examine the evidence:  Instead of assuming that your impressions of someone are valid, examine the actual evidence for it.  Take a look around at how other people are responding to the same behaviors.  Is it possible that your assessment of that person is off-base?
  • The double-standard method:  Instead of putting someone down in a harsh, critical way, try to look at and respond to their behaviors as if your best friend were exhibiting them.  You might find that if the same behaviors were displayed by someone you love, you would be more willing to overlook them.
  • Thinking in shades of gray:  Instead of thinking about your interactions with someone in all-or-nothing extremes, rate it on a scale from 0-100.  Something that is not a complete success may still be rated as an 80 - far from  the zero you may have given it before.  Rating your interactions with your difficult person this way may cause you to realize that things aren't as bad as you thought.
  • Define terms:  When you catch yourself labeling a whole person with a word like "loser" or "jerk," define your terms.  You'll find there is no definition for loser or jerk, or many of the other negative labels we apply to people.  Be more specific and behavioral - this will force you to factor out specific behaviors and leave the whole person alone.
  • The semantic method:  When you find yourself using words like "always," "never" or "should," substitute language that is not so strong or emotionally loaded, like "sometimes" or "it would be better if."
  • Re-attribution:  Instead of automatically assuming someone is "bad" and blaming them entirely for the problem, think about the many factors that have contributed to it.  Then focus on solving the problem rather than blaming someone for creating it.
  • Cost analysis:  Make a list of what someone's negative behavior really costs you.  Is it keeping you from doing your job?  Affecing your health?  Ruining relationships?  Or is it only a problem when you focus on it?  For example, Joe annoys those around him at work by talking too loudly on the phone.  A close examination of what this really cost Sue, who sits next to him, revealed that it does cause her to lose concentration during the day, but she actually lost more time by dwelling on it than the actual behavior, itself, cost her.