Dealing With Difficult Families

Customer Service Funeral Industry News Grief & Loss GROW May 10, 2021
Difficult family arrangement meeting

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Dealing With Difficult Families

Our thanks to Dr. Davana Pilczuk of The Human Performance Group for this article. Dr. Pilczuk is an award-winning kinesiologist who specializes in human performance, including dealing with difficult people. She is a speaker, writer and consultant for Fortune 500 companies, sports teams and small businesses. For more expert advice, check out Dr. Pilczuk’s recent article on respect.

Pain and grief can often bring out the worst in people. We know that and to a degree, we anticipate it. But then there is the client who takes anger, blame and rudeness to a whole new level and today you get to be their lucky target. So how do you deal with someone who is grieving but also behaving out of line? 

Your main goal is to deescalate the situation. No need to turn an annoying disagreement into a bar brawl, so make every effort to walk yourself, and them, off the ledge. Too often we tell ourselves we only have two options: eat it, smiling, nodding and taking the verbal beating, or lash out and let them know what we think of their behavior and potentially lose the family’s respect, return visit, and recommendation. Neither option is good from a sanity standpoint or a business one. The way to turn around a conversation that’s headed south is to pick up on two clues before it ever gets nasty.

#1: Its not about you

Clue number one is: people behave more because of them than because of you. Go ahead and re-read that sentence and let it soak in. We humans have a natural inclination to think that we are the center of the universe and that all things and all people are focused on us. The truth is, we could not be further from the truth. Each of us tends to behave based on how we see life and we tend to be very much focused on ourselves, not those around us. Our decisions, our judgments, our likes and dislikes are about us.

Here’s an example: I yell at both my kids to clean their room because their room is messy. At first glance, this common scenario seems cut and dry; the kids are messy and they’ve made me mad. But my anger is actually about me and my expectations. I grew up in a house where nothing was ever dirty or messy. My mother was constantly cleaning and expected the house to be maintained at a very high level. That’s how I grew up. Neat, clean and pick up after yourself is what I expected in others. So my anger is really about me, how I was raised and what I expect in others based on my view of life. 

Grieving families are the same way. Their behavior is usually about them, not you. The picky, detailed oriented person probably grew up that way and is most likely this way with everything in their life. The I-want-to-save-a-dollar person might really be going through a financial hardship like bankruptcy, a costly divorce or have no savings or insurance proceeds to soften this blow. You have no idea. They will just nickel and dime every item and complain about the ridiculous costs of funerals these days. Yes, their behavior might feel personal, but if you can remind yourself that their behavior is about them, not you, you can more easily detach from the situation. 

#2: Contempt is a clue

One of the most hurtful ways we express ourselves when mad is by showing contempt. Sarcasm, eye rolling, head shaking, rude comments and verbal attacks are all displays of contempt and are incredibly painful on the receiving end. They hurt more than criticism or defensiveness because displaying contempt is how we show we are superior to someone else. It’s the eyeroll and hair flip teenagers give their ‘dumb’ parents. It is incredibly disrespectful and a sure way to bait someone into a fight. However, contempt gives us a huge clue as to what is important to this person.

Contempt is tied to our values and values hold great importance to us. When someone shows you a sign of contempt, they are telling you, although very ineffectively, is that this is of great importance to them. If you can look past their bad behavior and say, “I apologize if I’ve misunderstood. This issue seems very important to you and I want to help. Let us see if we can’t find a better solution that works for you.” Again, their behavior really isn’t about you, it’s about them. They just need you to help them show up more effectively.

Decline their invite

In life, we are often invited to engage in conflict and energy-draining arguments. Fighting gets us fired up, but when done, we feel drained and depleted. Remember this: you don’t have to go to every party you’re invited to. Just because someone baits you and entices you to fight, doesn’t mean you should accept the invitation. Every encounter with someone will either energize or deplete you, so decide if it’s worth wearing yourself out over this issue. Every day ends with you going home, so decide now if its worth bringing all that negativity and resentment into your personal space, or maybe you can start leaving a couple of those invitations at work and unopened.

For more information on working with difficult people, contact Dr. Davana Pilczuk at