Staying centered in difficult interpersonal situations

This thing we call life is made up of a variety of situations that we judge as positive and negative. Relationships and even those brief moments where we come in contact with another person who is responding or reacting negatively towards us can be difficult to manage in ways we feel good about.

I am talking about the moments when something negative is said about us, we are rejected or resented, treated unfairly, judged negatively or ignored. If we feel any of these things are happening, it can be difficult to remain centered within ourselves and not be pulled to and fro by our emotional response, our fear, our shame, our embarrassment, our discomfort.

While it may feel justified (and we may even feel better doing it) reacting negatively usually makes the situation worse – the response from others may increase in its negativity. As a result we become fused or stuck with the idea that we have been wronged. We carry that indignation, anger or hurt into the situations that follow – filling our day with negative energy. Or worse, we review our own behaviour (usually after the situation has passed) and find ourselves in the wrong or having behaved in ways we are not proud of. This can often lead to negative judgements of ourself – a practice that plays heavily on our self-esteem and confidence. In the end, nobody wins.

It is possible to stay strong, maintain your self-confidence and not be influenced by negative experiences when you think about them in a useful way:

  • Start with remembering that you are the one in charge of how you respond and ultimately how you end up feeling when these moments occur.

  • There is no one else to blame when you take responsibility for your part in the interaction.

  • While you can listen to others (and this always helps in connecting with others – even those who are behaving negatively towards you) you have a choice about whether you take on their negativity or not.

  • Wait until you are calm before you respond. Notice your breathing and regulate it – slow it down, and consciously breathe in and out in a full way.

  • Use this time to listen to the other person – really try and hear both what they are saying, and what is behind what they are saying. What are their hurts, their frustrations, their fears? What have they misunderstood?

  • When it is your turn to speak, notice your voice tone and regulate it. If there is tension in your voice, anything you say will come out as aggressive and tense regardless of the words you choose. Check your body language and facial expressions too.

  • Your first words need to respond directly to what they have said or the feeling with which they speak: it can be a simple as “you sound angry/hurt/frustrated” or “so what you are saying is ...” (this is called paraphrasing), or “so you want me to ...?”. Then listen again for their response.

  • At this stage you are simply clarifying the message that the person is trying to get across to you. You are not dealing with your own feelings and frustrations, nor are you defending yourself.

  • If you are going to take anything away from this situation, make sure you are getting the correct message. If you start taking on their anger or frustration or responding to it with your own at this stage you will certainly have missed your chance to stay centered.

  • Check your assumptions about what is happening in the interaction. Are you assuming they want to hurt you or treat you badly? Are you missing important pieces of information like how they are feeling and what may be distorting their message to you? Are you carrying beliefs that make it hard for you to hear what they are saying? Adjust the message you are hearing to a more positive version (just for the minute if you can) and see if it's easier to swallow.

  • Check the content of the message for anything at all that might be true for you. If there is something there you can learn from then acknowledge it. If you find nothing in the message that rings true for you then understand that the other person's pain, hurt, anger, frustration, resentment is driving their message and it's not yours to own.

  • If you have made a mistake, be open to admitting it.
There is nothing to be ashamed of here. In practice admitting mistakes helps you learn, let go of them and move forward. Becoming attached to blaming others at this point will trip you up on your path to living consciously and staying centered.

  • When telling your part of the story, make sure you are behaving as an Adult. Check your message for blame of others, for any sense that you are a victim, for thoughts and feelings that do not relate to the interaction you are currently in. Identify whether you are behaving in a child-like way or if you feel the other person is scolding you as a parent would.

  • Resort only to Adult responses and behaviour. This will help you feel good about your situation management later on and ensure that you stay authentic throughout the experience. Silence helps a lot with this. Less talk and more true listening resolves conflicts quickly.

  • Maintain respect for the other person at all times. Maybe you don't like what they are saying, or the way they are saying it. Maybe you wish they would take their grievances or frustrations with the world somewhere else. But we all have these moments in life. See this as a learning opportunity for yourself. Understand that you can't please everyone all the time. Acknowledge the right of another individual to belief differently from you. Above all, understand that the interaction is most likely NOT about you – it's not personal. These things rarely are.

  • You have a choice about how you respond and if you work on the assumption that this is not about you or personal then you will be more able to keep a distance from the feelings and emotional response you would otherwise have to negative moments in life.

  • How do you want it to turn out? Focus on the goal of coming away from the interaction with your self-confidence in tact, the situation resolved and the energy around it cleared.


And if you muck it up the first time, then reflect on how you could do it differently next time. Every time you learn something new it takes a couple of shots at it to improve the new skills you are trying to learn. Coach yourself positively and be kind to yourself.