Dealing with Difficult People, Part I: Small Is Big


Sarah Pachter

I recently discovered one of the secrets of getting along with difficult people while playing a basic card game with my children. The game is called “Spot It,” and it consists of 60 cards. A typical card displays a handful of symbols such as a red balloon, a four leaf clover, a snowflake and more. Every single card has one – and only one – symbol in common with every other card in the deck. The goal of the game is to “spot” that matching symbol. It seems relatively easy; however, certain cards are a bit tricky, even – ahem! – for an adult.

Our family played seamlessly for a while, and then suddenly, we were all stuck!

My daughter looked up and said, “Mommy, this one for sure doesn’t have a match!”

I responded, “Honey, I promise every single card has a symbol in common. Here, let me show you.”

I started to closely examine the pair and found these particular two cards to be quite challenging. (I will spare myself embarrassment by not sharing how long it took.)

What makes certain Spot It cards so tricky? When searching for the symbol, our mind’s eye naturally looks for a visual of the same size. But if one card has an oversized snowflake, the other card may hold a tiny snowflake, thereby rendering the match unnoticed.

Right then, amidst playing with my children, I had an “Aha!” moment, and made a mental note of the following: Each one of us is like a Spot It card. We all contain a certain variety of qualities and character traits. We differ, often in significant ways, but we all share similarities and common ground.

Sometimes we meet a person, and we see that similarity and connection right away, just as when we find the Spot It card with ease. Other times however, we meet (or know) someone and may think to ourselves, “Oh, we have nothing in common.” (This is equivalent to when my daughter was sure there was no matching symbol.) Not only do we have difficulty finding our shared trait, but we may even believe the other person is a bit challenging to get along with.

The key to getting along with others is finding something that can connect us. Truthfully, every person, no matter how difficult, is made in G-d’s image (Bereishit 1:26). By default, we all have that as common ground. But usually we share other things, too. Just as in the Spot It analogy, one person may have a trait of kindness that is very, very big, while another might carry a trait of kindness that is miniscule. This discrepancy alone can make for a strained relationship.

The key phrase when looking for the matching images on the cards is to remember that small is big. Let us focus on this one element and see how it can help us when dealing with difficult people.

Small is big.

When dealing with someone who is difficult, we must first look inward at our own actions. Not just to determine how we can improve, but rather, to focus on the positive, and on the acts we have already performed. Pat yourself on the back for any small act you do that moves the relationship in a positive direction. A quick and friendly text or call can work wonders. Even just smiling (especially when that’s the last thing you want to do) can ease tension.

On the other hand, sometimes giving space is that small act that is needed for building a relationship. It is particularly crucial that our efforts be small, because it feeds our inner motivation to continue trying. Trying to be a hero can lead us down a failing path, but doing something miniscule can make a long term impact.

While performing and recognizing our own small efforts, we must simultaneously acknowledge that small is big for the other party as well. Just as our small actions can go a long way, theirs too can create tremendous impact, particularly when we make note of them, and magnify them. We tend to magnify the negative of people we are not fond of, creating a skewed caricature of them in our mind’s eye. We must learn to magnify their positive. Make their small big. Step outside our perspective and acknowledge that what may seem obvious and gracious to us, is for them stretching beyond their comfort zone.

A friend of mine shared with me that she called her sister-in-law every year on her birthday. Additionally, she sent gifts for her sister-in-law’s children’s birthdays with no reciprocation or even acknowledgment. Finally, after many years, she received a phone call on her own child’s birthday. It was a miniscule act, objectively not “matching up.” However, we do not have control of the actions of others, therefore focusing on any positive change makes all parties happier. Small can be someone else’s big.

Growth starts from whatever baseline we are given. G-d looks upon our actions and judges our growth from where we stand. Extending this kindness to others only helps everyone win.

Sometimes, however, the negative actions of others feel so large that they threaten to outweigh the good, making it hard to focus on the positive. How can we cope with the disappointment we feel from other people’s negative large choices?

Stay tuned for next week’s second installment:  Big is small.