How to Handle a Difficult Situation With Grace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Who Will Cry When You Die?" by Robin Sharma. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you struggle against letting challenges and hardships take control of your life? How can you change your thinking and actions to handle difficulty with more grace?

Robin Sharma, the famous author of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and Who Will Cry When You Die?, says that if you don’t know how to handle difficult situations, they could end up controlling your life. That’s why he shared some strategies you can follow when you’re going through a tough time.

Continue reading for an overview of Sharma’s tips on dealing with difficulty.

How to Cope Appropriately With Difficulty

One way Sharma suggests you take charge of your life is by handling difficulties with grace. Challenges and hardship are an unavoidable part of life, but you don’t have to let them wrest control from you. 

We’ll first cover two changes to your thinking that will help you cope more effectively with challenges. We’ll then discuss three actions you can take to handle problems and remain in control of your life. 

Change Your Thinking by Focusing on the Present and Future, Not on the Past

If you want to know how to handle a difficult situation more gracefully, Sharma demands you exert mental energy only on what you can improve in the present and future rather than on the past. Beating yourself up over unchangeable mistakes only prevents you from moving on. 

Instead, says Sharma, figure out what lessons you can derive from your mistake. View mistakes as blessings because they provide you with insights that help you become a better person.

(Shortform note: Sharma tells you to avoid backward-looking and non-productive thinking. This specific type of thinking is called rumination: the act of dwelling on or obsessing over negative events or situations. One way to combat rumination is to orient your focus toward the positives of a situation—similarly to Sharma’s recommendation to view mistakes as lessons, rather than shortcomings. For example, if you feel you made a social gaffe, frame it as a learning experience. You wouldn’t have gained the knowledge to do better next time without this failure.)

Change Your Thinking by Seeing Difference as an Asset

Sharma’s second recommended mental adjustment to cope better with problems is to stop finding fault in things and people that aren’t completely to your liking. See divergence and difference as beautiful and critical to the functioning of the world, not as impediments. 

(Shortform note: Since the publication of this book in 1999, celebrating diversity and difference and promoting inclusion have become foundational concerns to the way we live—and especially to the way we work. Businesses usually promote diversity through educational programs and diversity and inclusion groups. For organizations, this ensures employee understanding of difference and compliance with diversity projects, as employers can’t guarantee employees will make the necessary mental adjustments themselves.)

Change Your Actions to Cope Appropriately With Difficulty

Now that you’ve changed your thought patterns to cope more skillfully with difficulty, Sharma recommends adopting three actions to handle difficulty on a daily basis:

Control Your Anger

Sharma strongly advises you to learn how to control angry outbursts. Reacting with anger is a habit that can ruin relationships and cause others to label you as a hothead. 

The Power of Anger

Sharma advises you to get your temper under control. But are there ever times when reacting in anger is constructive? In The Upside of Your Dark Side, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener argue that anger about injustice can catalyze positive change in the world. What’s more, hiding anger is unhealthy and can increase the likelihood of developing bronchitis and heart attacks. 

Yet the authors do also warn that letting your anger get the best of you can be destructive and suggest ways to control it. You can, for instance, let your conversation partner know when you’re angry so they understand why it’s difficult for you to communicate well in that moment.  

Sharma proposes two specific ways to prevent angry reactions: 

Count to 100

When tempted to respond angrily, count to 100, advises Sharma. Your anger may dissipate in that time. 

(Shortform note: Sharma’s advice to count to 100 when angry is similar to the advice to take a break from a tense situation or conversation—which may be more actionable if you can’t find a way to pause the conversation to count to 100. When you feel anger building, get a glass of water or use the restroom.) 

Ask Yourself Three Questions 

Sharma also recommends the “Three Gates Technique” created by ancient thinkers to approach tense or anger-filled situations. Ask yourself the following three questions before responding angrily to someone:

1) Are my words true? For instance, is my accusation that my co-worker takes two-hour lunches true? Or is there another explanation for their midday absence? 

2) Are my words needed? Do I need to address this issue? Perhaps my co-worker’s going through a difficult time and will return to their normal hours soon. 

3) Are my words gentle? If I address my co-worker, will I do so kindly? 

If you can respond ‘yes’ to all three questions, then speak. If not, consider modifying or withholding your speech.

Other Versions of the Three Gates Technique 

The Three Gate Technique to which Sharma refers here has somewhat nebulous origins and seems to have surfaced in different iterations at different times. Some attribute it to the Sufi poet Rumi and others to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who called it the Triple Filter Test. 

Furthermore, in Buddhism, there’s a similar series of five questions to check if your speech is appropriate:

1. Is it spoken at the right time?
2. Is it spoken in truth?
3. Is it spoken affectionately?
4. Is it spoken beneficially?
5. Is it spoken with a mind of goodwill? 

These three questions incorporate the Three Gates questions. However, with its additional two questions, the Buddhist approach places a heavier emphasis on speaking compassionately than the Three Gates Technique. If there’s even a trace of malice or ill will, in Buddhist thought, you should withhold speech.  

Write Down All Your Problems

To deal more effectively with challenges in your day-to-day life, Sharma recommends writing down your problems. This relieves you of the burden of thinking about them and may also help you solve them: You might realize that some problems aren’t actually problems, that you can solve some easily, and that you don’t need to worry as much about others. 

(Shortform note: Sharma suggests writing down your problems to get a better mental handle on them. Beyond this basic recommendation, it may even be more beneficial to hand-write your problems rather than type them. This is because you can’t write as fast as you type and therefore must express problems concisely. You thus avoid diluting your understanding of the problem through wordiness.)

Put Aside Finite Time to Worry

The final action Sharma recommends to prevent problems from consuming your daily life is to schedule periodic stretches of “worry time.” This can be up to 30 minutes at the end of the day. But when those 30 minutes are up, stop worrying and move on to something new. 

(Shortform note: It’s helpful to set up parameters for Sharma’s suggested “worry time” so you get all your worries off your chest effectively. First, determine a regular time of day and amount of time to worry—Sharma suggests worrying at the end of the day, but you might find a different time (such as first thing in the morning) that suits you better. Whatever the case, the worry time should last no more than 30 minutes. Worry in an uncomfortable place far from spaces you enjoy being in. To conclude your worry time, shift to an activity you enjoy.)

How to Handle a Difficult Situation With Grace

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Here's what you'll find in our full Who Will Cry When You Die? summary :

  • Why most people end up leading lives they’ll regret
  • How to seize control of your life and turn it into one you’ll look back on fondly
  • How and why you should set intentional breaks in your daily life

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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