How To Deal With Difficult People

Putting a technological spin to an old Buddhist exercise

Image from Unsplash

Here’s an old Buddhist exercise for strengthening compassion and communication, with a new technological spin.

The “Difficult Person” Exercise

A few days ago, I read an article on Lion’s Roar on how to deal with difficult people in your life. It proposes a trading places exercise, with you and the difficult person (DP) sitting across from each other (in your imagination of course).

It’s a fully immersive reality and mind-bending exercise where you imagine being fully in the difficult person’s body, what does it feel like? What pains does he or she experience?

And then, imagine that you’re looking at yourself as the DP. What does you/DP want from you that you don’t want to give? Now, imagine that you give yourself/the DP what they want. How does it make them you/them feel?

Now shift back to yourself and your reality. Is that something that you can do? How can you reach a compromise? How can you make both people, yourself and the DP, feel happy, safe, and secure?

Snapchat Already Does This

The exercise reminds me of Snapchat’s Face Swap “filter” where you and a friend swap faces. Now, imagine that you are friendly with that special difficult person in your life, and you face swap on Snapchat! How strange that would be! (see Useful Links)

Face swapping in augmented reality (AR) is a particularly compelling case, because as you move your body and your face in real life (RL) the body and face of your friend or opponent moves in sync. This messes with the “agency” part of our minds, shifting over our sense of self to identify with your friend or opponent — which is quite a trippy experience.

Using Augmented or Virtual Reality to Train Compassion

In the future, I imagine AR (like face swapping) or fully immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences (wearing headsets) will be incredibly strong tools to trick our identities into shifting.

Imagine you’ve just put on a pair of VR goggles. You’re in a normal enough but unfamiliar home. You glance in the mirror and you see the face of your opponent, the “difficult person”. As you widen your eyes, the image widens it’s eyes. Soon it’s no longer an it, it’s you. You’ve become the difficult person in fully immersive virtual reality environment.

I can bet, that in a few short minutes, you’ll feel compassion and friendliness toward this person who has been causing you so much difficulty. And that’s the first step towards communication and problem solving.

The Big Questions for Technologists

How can we use AR and VR technologies to enhance communication and cooperation? In an increasingly globalized world, we have many cross-cultural conflicts.

How can we use AR and VR technologies to enhance communication and cooperation?

Imagine if you could wear a hijab while hearing bombs land on neighboring houses around you, hearing children cry for their parents. Just a few minutes of this experience is enough to jolt compassion into the hearts of wary politicians and hardened war generals.

But is that what we want? Netflix’s Black Mirror asks us this question in “Men Against Fire” where the military invented compassion-killing contact lenses that turn “the enemy” into frightening monsters that shriek like aliens from your worst nightmares. In the episode, this technology increased the kill rate from 10–20% like during World War II, when many soldiers would fire above the heads of opposing troops, to upwards of 90%.

We have to ask ourselves if we want compassion. This is a choice, a trait that we can choose to enhance or weaken in ourselves as humans and technologies co-evolve.

Useful Links…

The “Difficult Person” Exercise

The Difficult Person exercise provides a tool for us to focus on one particular person with whom we are having a hard time.

What’s a Face Swap? Check it out.

A compilation of funny and bizarre face swaps with inanimate and strange objects and people.

Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire”

Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire” is a warning from the past about our future. When empathy is a bug, not a feature, who do we blame?


My own identity shifting exercise, I first wore hijabs in Muslim areas of Indonesia like Terengganu, a very uncomfortable experience at first which soon became normal.

Who is Olivia Jeffers? Formerly an engineer, Olivia traversed the product-marketing chasm and is now a full-time science writer and event producer. Working in the heart of Boston and Cambridge where cutting-edge innovation takes place, she shares her unique perspective at the forefront of where technology meets humanity.

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Originally published at www.compassionate-technologies.org (includes additional links and resources for your increased #edumacation).