How to Take the High Road in 9 Sticky Situations

Updated: May 11, 2020

Though it might not always be the easiest path to take, choosing kindness, even in difficult circumstances, ultimately pays off for both you and those around you

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Why is taking the higher road a good idea?

Sometimes that sassy comeback feels so good when you practice it in your mirror while getting ready for a meeting with your co-worker or lunch with your mother-in-law. But when you actually speak those spiteful words out loud, you don’t feel quite as pumped. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles, California, says even when it’s hard, the higher road is always the best choice. “It’s good for your personal happiness because you uphold, not sacrifice, your values and a more appropriate, healthier code of conduct. You avoid compounding the situation by stooping to the level of poor or unhealthy behavior yourself, because, as the old adage goes, two wrongs do not make a right,” she says. “Consequently, by taking the higher ground, you can feel cleaner, healthier, and happier because you’ve maintained your integrity and value system.”

For every situation, Thomas suggests approaching your reaction with the tried-and-true compliment sandwich. First, say something genuine and positive, then go into the ‘meat’ of the problem or issue, and then end on a note that is, again, genuine and positive, Thomas explains. “With this method, you have a much better chance of having the other person stay open and receptive to you rather than getting defensive and lashing out or shutting down.” Here’s how to apply this advice in common scenarios.

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When your best friend betrays your trust

When your best friend (who holds all of your promises and most of your heart) does something that makes you doubt their loyalty, the sting is intense. But Thomas says when this happens, it’s important to pause before being angry and upset, and instead, give them the benefit of a doubt, especially when this action was out of character. Then, take a deep breath and be completely honest about how you feel if you want to solve this friendship problem. “Directly communicate with him or her to find out why this betrayal of trust happened. For example, you can say something like, ‘I know we are so close and can discuss anything with each other. So, I need to tell you that I am very confused and hurt that you told Sally about my not getting that job I wanted. I had told you to not tell anyone and I wanted to ask you directly why you shared this information. I know this has never happened before, and I wanted to be honest with you so we could work this out together.'” Here are the signs you’re in a toxic friendship.

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When your partner makes a hurtful comment

In long-term romantic relationships, it doesn’t matter how well you get along—arguments and snap reactions are bound to happen, especially when you live together and throw children into the mix. But if sarcasm is floating in your direction on the regular, Thomas says your partner might be exercising his or her passive aggressiveness because he or she is upset with you, or possibly something that has nothing to do with you. The best course of action here is just to address the issue directly. “Make your spouse aware of what just happened from your perspective. You might say, ‘Lately, I have noticed that you’re going through a lot of stress at work and I think I’ve been very supportive to you with that. But, just now, you treated me in a way that seems mean and hurt my feelings. I don’t know if it’s because you’re upset about work or something else, but we need to figure out how to deal with upsetting things without hurting each other. Remember that we’re on the same team,'” she says. Plus, asking yourself these two questions can stop practically any fight in its tracks.

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When your child says “I hate you”

When your child is cruel, it’s like a stab wound to the heart. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s common for all kids (especially teenagers) to say such things. “Remember that children usually do not have the sharpest ability (when they’re quite young) or impulse control (when they’re teens) to express their feelings articulately, so instead they come out in a more extreme or exaggerated way,” Thomas says. It’s critical that you remain the adult in this situation and not react in an emotionally immature, childish way yourself. “You need to talk to your child in an age-appropriate way that acknowledges his or her right to have feelings about you, but that you also have to take certain actions for his or her own good, whether it is liked or not.” If your child is 8 to 10, consider: “I know you are very mad at me right now and that’s why you’re saying those words. I always want you to tell me how you are feeling, but I want to tell you why you needed to stop eating cookies. You already ate three, and that’s what you and I had agreed for your snack so that you wouldn’t be too full for dinner. I love you and I’m letting you eat what you like, but only the right amount.”

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When someone cuts in line at the grocery store

Ever had one of those Thursdays where you felt like the star of the infamous children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day? And then, to top it off, you run out of milk, and at the grocery store, someone blatantly cuts in front of you. Though you’re ready to let this person have it, Thomas says to remember that more than likely, that person didn’t intentionally move in front of you in line. “Politely, but firmly say that he or she just cut in front of you and may not have realized that you were in line. Hopefully, the person will cooperate,” she suggests. If the person starts to get upset—or worse, defensive and angry—it’s better to drop it. As Thomas says, “Just feel good that you stood your ground and asserted yourself to an appropriate degree without going beyond a point that merits it.” These tips can help you control your anger.

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When a car cuts you off on the highway

Traffic is no joke, and with an estimated 3,287 deaths per day due to accidents, being cautious on the road is a must. So when someone speeds by and cuts you off, it can be tempting to flip them the bird, honk your horn, or yell a profanity. Though Thomas says blowing your horn is okay for safety reasons, anything more is risky and ill-advised. You don’t want to get into a road rage situation with someone obviously already unaware of those around him or her. “Try to remember that this offense most likely wasn’t done against you personally, since the other driver probably doesn’t even know you and may just be drunk or high, distracted, stressed, or just selfish and oblivious,” Thomas says. “With this knowledge, take some deep breaths to calm down and pat yourself on the back for being an aware, appropriate, and safe driver.” Here’s how reframing your thoughts could change your life.

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When a coworker throws you under the bus or takes credit

Unless you’re the boss or a solo contractor, it’s likely that at some point, you’ll have issues with a coworker. Though managing conflict is an important aspect of growing as a professional, learning to handle these situations in a classy way might take practice. Thomas suggests giving your coworker the chance to explain him or herself in private—both as a gesture of kindness and a direct warning that you know what they’re up to and you don’t appreciate it. If your colleague won’t cop to his mistake, don’t take the very next opportunity to throw him under the bus in an act of revenge. Instead, consider finding a way to alert your boss to the truth, so you can get the credit you deserve.

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When customer service doesn’t care

Even if you have more passport stamps than cash in your pocket, traveling can be stressful. From getting to the airport and checking in to making sure you have the right gate, by the time you’re due to board, you just want to settle into your seat already. That’s why a flight delay can be extra stressful—and you look to the airport staff to keep you updated and relaxed. When they snap at you, Thomas says instead of lashing back, do your best to remember that more than likely, it’s not because of you, but because of unforeseen circumstances. In other words? They’re likely very stressed and not handling it well. “Take the high road by remaining calm and asking very simple, short questions that can help focus someone when he or she is possibly feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “For instance, you can ask the airline employee, ‘Do you have an approximate time my flight will be leaving?’ or ‘Does it look like my flight could be delayed to the point that I should book a room to stay overnight?’ If the airline employee is still being unhelpful, find another person to assist you rather than continuing this exercise of futility and frustration for all parties involved.”

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When your date ghosts you

If you’ve been single for a while, then you know how the texting tango goes: You go from planning the future vacation you’ll take together to waiting days to hear from them. Obnoxious? Yep. Malicious? Not really. If a new someone you thought could be the someone disappears on you, Thomas says to try to understand that more than likely, they’re not ready for a relationship, or maybe they just don’t see a future with you. “You have every right to try to respectfully ask this person at least once, through text or otherwise, why he or she ended things, and see if there’s a chance to work things out if you still want to,” she says. “Whether the other person provides any answers or hope for the relationship to resume, this attempt on your part to either have closure or a new beginning with your partner is a healthy and necessary way to gain knowledge and direction for this part of your life.” Remember these therapist-approved ways to deal with dating rejection.

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When a client is unreasonably rude via email

When someone is paying you to do a job for them, you might need to abide by the rule that “the customer is always right.” That said, you don’t have to tolerate out-of-control rants, offensive language, or put-downs. If this happens, Thomas recommends setting a clear and firm boundary of what is acceptable within your business relationships. “Let the client know that you are confused by the intent of the email and ask for clarification,” she says. If it turns out that you took the message the wrong way, great, no harm done. On the other hand, if they meant to relay the negative message, Thomas suggests saying something like: “I must let you know that I feel quite surprised and confused by how you are addressing me and I would prefer that we deal with each other in a manner that remains professional and respectful. Please feel free to let me know about any upset you may have with me or our working together in a respectful way, and let’s find a way to solve this together.” And while you’re being thoughtful and kind to others, remember that there are health benefits for being kind to yourself, too.