Ki Moments Blog

Support for life’s “key” moments.

November 3, 2020

Difficult People Are Angels Sent To Help You. No, Seriously.

Difficult People Are Angels Sent To Help You.  No, Seriously.

In Which My Difficult Neighbor, Who I Don’t Like, Teaches Me Something

Many thanks to Joe Dunn, Executive Coach, for his guest post....

Bob The Neighbor

I have a neighbor. Let’s call him Bob (it’s not his name). I really, really don’t like Bob, and apparently he doesn’t like me. The details don’t matter a lot, but ten years ago Bob and I got into a nasty altercation involving my young son. It was bad. We got close to having lawyers involved. It was never resolved and since then we ignore each other, cross to the other side of the street when we pass. Ugh.

This seems unlikely to change. When I think about Bob, I get angry, and a little scared. The sheer rage with which he yelled at me was frightening, and, from my point of view, completely unjustified. Together we entered that place of complete incomprehension, that state where a person becomes the Other, something not quite human, impossible to understand, and definitely not on our side.

We are highly attuned to whether a person is with us — part of our tribe — or against us — one of the Others. If we were still wandering bands of hunter-gatherers, it would be a useful, if rather over-tuned, mechanism. When our senses told us back then that somebody had turned against us, the possibility that they might kill us was reasonably high, so having our physical systems getting ready to run or fight was useful adaptation.

Rationally I’m perfectly aware that Bob isn’t going to try and kill me — he’ll probably never even talk to me again. But my ancient animal responses are telling me I have an enemy, and enemies are mortally dangerous and he’s living just down the street.

Difficult People Are All Around Us

You have Difficult People in your life. Or maybe you don’t right now, but you did, and you will in the future. The weird thing is that every Difficult Person has friends, family, people who love and respect them. In other words, Difficult People are just people that you find Difficult.

Now, there’s a caveat here, which is, of course, that some people are more Difficult than others, but really no man is an island — everybody connects with somebody. The Difficult People just don’t connect with you.

I work sometimes with pairs of founders who started their company together and now can’t stand to be in the same room. Separately, they are charming, level-headed, articulate. Put them together, and they become unhinged, wandering off into emotional diatribes about the bizarre faults of the Other, hearing conspiracies and attacks in conversations that on the surface appear entirely neutral.

So the question becomes: why? What is it about that particular boss, or the new person in marketing, or in my case Bob that makes the connection so broken?

That’s the job of difficult people: they are angels to pose to you difficult, and sometimes Very Difficult questions.

Bob Is An Angel

To be clear, I don’t think Bob is an angel. I think he’s a late middle-aged guy like me. But by living on my block, and getting pissed off at my son, he’s posing some tricky questions, which include at least the following:

  • what’s up with your anger? what makes you so furious, and why?
  • why is anger useful?
  • why do you, in fact, let your son run kind of wild at times?
  • what if he’s, oh my god, right about some of the things he said about me?
  • what is the right response to verbal aggression?
  • what makes you go passive, and then reactive?
  • what’s the value of talking behind Bob’s back (hey, I’m writing an entire post about him)?
  • how much can you forgive a person? what’s the value, really, of forgiveness to you?
  • look how powerful the desire to protect your son is. what would you not do to keep him safe?

These are not things I would give much attention to in the normal run of things. Bob the angel (OK, thinking of Bob as an angel — he’s not an angel) gives me the possibility of wrestling with some of darker corners of who I am.

Angels Illuminate

To learn about ourselves, we need others to shine lights into our darker places. It’s part of our task on this earth to reflect back to other people the parts of themselves they may not yet see. In the working world, we call this “giving feedback”, and we (mostly) try to do it with some grace and care.

When we come across Difficult People, we have a few choices: we can step away and distance ourselves; we can engage and fight; or we can wonder — what has this Difficult Person been sent to teach me?

It’s a trick, of course. Depending on your view of the universe, you may believe that some force, or confluence of energies actually has sent this person, or you may believe that we live in a vaguely directed set of random encounters and no circumstance has any particular meaning. Doesn’t matter. You can choose, here, with this person, to learn something.

So next time the Difficult Person in your life infuriates you, see if you can take the time and the distance to wonder: what’s the question here? What am I being asked? What lesson am I being challenged to learn?

Angels illuminate. Unbeknownst to them, the Difficult Person, glowering at you, ignoring you, sending you bizarre emails, is shining a little light into some places you haven’t looked at clearly, some places you might want to explore.


Joe Dunn coaches CEOs, founders and technical leaders in high growth organizations. He also curates articles on Tech People in Leadership that you might want to check out. 

Cover Photo by Eugene Zhyvchikon Unsplash

Let’s discuss this post in the comments

Note: you don’t need to “log in” or “sign up” to comment. Simply enter your comment, then under the “sign up with Disqus” field enter your name. Then enter your email address and click the checkbox (that will appear) with the label “I’d rather comment as a guest.”