How to Deal with Pushy People

A reader asks:

Any suggestions for dealing with especially pushy or overbearing people? I have a family member who’s constantly pestering me with their political views and trying to “convert” me to their position. I also have a boss who’s very pushy in the way she delegates tasks and projects—she’s kind of “bossy” in her communication and tends to micromanage with constant “check-ins.” I feel like I don’t handle these people very well but I’m also not really sure where to start doing things differently… I’m definitely a conflict avoider, so I’m sure that’s part of it.

This question immediately makes me think of one of my favorite quotes:

If people keep stepping on you, wear a pointy hat.
— Joyce Rachelle

One of the things I appreciate about the quote is that it’s a reminder to stay focused on the things I can control rather than getting lost in thoughts about the other person, why they should be different, how unfair it all is, etc.

So, I guess the first thing I’d say is this:

Always try to distinguish between where you want to control things and make changes vs where you actually have control and the ability to change things.

You can’t control how other people feel, for example, but you can always control what you choose to focus on.

That being said, I think there are basically three different approaches to dealing with pushy or overbearing people—and often a mixture is ideal…

1. Better Boundaries

Setting boundaries means deciding how you will behave when people do something you don’t like. And while boundaries are mostly about you and your reactions, they can indirectly affect or change other people. Specifically, how you react to a pushy person’s behavior may—whether you realize it or not—be reinforcing that behavior.

For example, if you respond to your boss’s micromanaging by being passive and overly-deferential, you may be reinforcing their tendency to be pushy with you. On the other hand, if you were more assertive and direct about not wanting to be micromanaged so much, they might be less likely to micromanage you because it doesn’t “work” for them as well.

So, while I wouldn’t necessarily encourage you to expect that setting better boundaries can make pushy people better behaved, I think setting good boundaries can often make other people less badly behaved.

2. Acceptance

Acceptance is all about changing your own internal reactions to pushy people.

For example, if your politically overbearing family member sends you yet another “interesting” article about why So-and-So’s policies are destroying our country, it will likely lead to frustration and anger plus a lot of ruminating and dwelling on why this family member is so obnoxious and aggressive in their views, why they can’t just keep things to themselves, etc.

An acceptance approach might entail validating your initial anger as understandable and normal. Then adjusting your expectations of your family member’s behavior… “They’ve always been like this, they’re unlikely to change, and me expecting them to be different isn’t productive (even if it makes me feel better about myself).”

3. Avoidance

I often talk about how avoidance can be detrimental to our emotional health. Avoiding anxiety, for example, tends to only make us anxious about being anxious and therefore increases our overall anxiety in the long-run. Or, avoiding difficult conversations with our spouse might give some temporary relief in the moment but it’s at the expense of continuing to allow resentments to build up and fester.

But avoidance can be healthy… Specifically, in situations where someone really doesn’t respond well to your boundaries and continues to violate them, or in situations where the stress of dealing with a pushy person is just so frequent and intense that acceptance seems untenable long-term, often it makes more sense to think seriously about how you can just avoid that person more often.

Put another way, boundaries are about changing your external behavior, acceptance is about changing your internal behavior, and avoidance is about changing your environment.

For example: If your boss is just too pushy and doesn’t respond well to your boundaries, maybe it’s worth trying to get a transfer to a different department or even seeking a new job (conflict with managers is consistently among the top reasons people cite for leaving their jobs).

Of course, for all sorts of reasons it can be difficult to make a major structural change to your life so that you don’t have to interact with someone as much or at all. But it’s important to keep this option open even if it’s uncomfortable to consider.

To sum up, the best way to deal with pushy people is likely some combination of setting better boundaries and practicing acceptance. But it’s important to remember that sometimes you may well have to make the difficult decision to drastically reduce or even eliminate your exposure to someone, as difficult as that might be.