How to Deal with Difficult People

It was very late on Saturday night when Martha made the decision. For weeks she had been deeply troubled in mind and spirit. Joan, Martha’s closest friend, told the story. The two girls had graduated from high school in. To do their part in the war effort they took jobs in the local post office, waiting on customers.

The going was tough in the post office. Everybody wanted to mail letters and packages—in a hurry. They didn’t want to wait. But wait was what they had to do. The customers got worse and worse. They shouted; they were sarcastic; they had no manners. “What a beating they gave us,” the girls thought bitterly.

Joan and Martha began to show the strain in their faces, in their postures, and in their manners. They were too tired at night to go out, too tired even to sleep. They were heavy-eyed and listless when they returned to work in the morning.

Tears were in Martha’s eyes this Saturday night when she and Joan sat down to talk things out. The crux of the trouble was, they agreed, that they were letting the people they dealt with break them down. They’d tried everything—so they thought. First, they’d tried smacking people down. Later they tried cold silence. Both of these tactics made matters worse, led to violent dispute. Finally, they’d tried patience, just sustained patience, seeking to keep things smooth and pleasant. But always they had failed because eventually some really impossible person came in and created a scene that left them nerve-racked and upset for the day. Eventually they fell into a completely defensive attitude. They braced against expected attack, ready to counter attack. They were tense. The hard pull of nerve and muscular strain showed in their knitted brows—an attitude the customers took to be veiled hostility.

As they talked this Saturday night, it gradually dawned on these two girls that their own approach to the people might have something to do with their constantly mounting troubles. That was the problem they had to solve, they agreed: the difficult people.

“We’ll not let them do it,” Martha decided. “No matter how loud they are. Let’s relax and go out to them first before they begin to raise a fuss. Let’s see what a big treatment of courtesy will do to keep them from pushing us around.” Joan agreed with a burst of enthusiasm. “We’ll just kill ‘em with kindness,” she said.

The following Monday they managed to keep calm and pleasant. They began to “go out” to the customers. They went out to the customers with a friendly word or act, before the customers took over and set the tone of the transaction. They kept the initiative. They set the tone. Things went pretty well. After work they felt good. Next day, Tuesday, they still held to their resolve—smiling, friendly, and courteous—still going out to the customers.

The tension eased; customers relaxed and smiled. Martha and Joan found the work easier too, and they got more done. It became a sort of game—to win difficult people rather than be frustrated by them—a most interesting game. They were fascinated with the thought that they were standing, detached and apart, watching themselves keep one situation after another under control.

Day after day things went more smoothly. On Friday Joan said, “Something has happened. A better class of people is coming in here!”

Can we make the difficult people we deal with a better class of people—almost miraculously—by changing our own attitude and manner of dealing with them?

Here is a story by George Pearce, a college mate. It is about Benton Hayward, a lad who came to live in the same house as our friend at an eastern university.

“Bent was a fine-looking chap,” Pearce recalled. “He was active and everyone liked him—at first. He seemed to have no bad habits. But after a little while a lot of little antagonisms developed. He had an argument with this fellow, a misunderstanding with another, about small matters, Pretty soon every one in the house was inclined to leave Bent to himself. He was walled off, you might say. There was never any big row, you understand; and when I was graduated and left, the situation was that Bent was just mildly disliked.

“Well, I didn’t see Bent for more than twenty years. Then he dropped into my office late one afternoon. He looked a bit seedy. His clothes were a little shabby and his attitude seemed furtive. We talked. Around 5 o’clock, I said I’d have to go home.

“‘Aren’t you going to take me home to dinner?’ he asked.

“‘Sure,’ I said, although I thought it was a little odd that he would come right out and ask me. He brought a sizable package with him to our house.

“After dinner that night, I had to leave the living room for a few minutes. He sat talking to my wife. When I came back, I was amazed to find him in what amounted to a violent argument with my wife. He was insisting that she buy a cheap, shoddy rug.

“It developed that Bent had had many jobs during the years past. When the depression came, he was one of the first in his business organization to be dismissed. He had no luck in getting another position and finally had gone to selling these cheap rugs from door to door.

“Now,” said Pearce, “just today, I was talking with Bill Wilson and Bent’s name came up. And Bill gave me the rest of the story.

“Two years ago a hobo was found dead on a railroad right of way in Arizona. He had been killed by a train. The dead man was Benton Hayward. From the name tag in the pocket of the coat he was wearing he was identified. The coat had been given him a few months before by a man who was one of his boyhood friends.”

‘What lay back of Benton Hayward’s tragic end? Could it be that his habit of offending or irritating people was the cause? Could it be because he lost all his friends and human connections that he finally became a hopeless wanderer?

This is a true story, with only names and locations changed. Let’s think seriously about this once proud young lad who, bewildered and defeated by he knew not what, trudged across the desert to his end, his contentious mouth at last stopped with dust.

Just before the Second World War, the president of one of America’s great corporations died. This suddenly brought to the board of directors the problem of appointing his successor. They had to find a man to guide a company doing an annual volume of business of S5oo,00o,ooo.

The directors might have gone outside the organization for a new leader. Frequently that is necessary when exactly the right man is not available within a company. But in this case, the right man was at hand. His associates, employees, the company’s customers, and prominent people dealing with the company agreed on this. He was appointed. And his record since, through the most critical years of his company and his country, proved he was the man for the place.

How did it happen that all these people agreed he was the man for the job? The main fact was that his relationships with people over a long time had been harmonious. To be sure, he had ability, persistence, and strength of character; and he had learned the business as he came up from the lowest ranks. But his greatest strength was his administrative ability. He knew how to get people to help him do things. A fellow officer said, “He’s the easiest man to work with in the outfit. He never issues orders—he makes suggestions or requests.” Big George, an employee, walked in on two directors and said, “We want him because he’s always fair and friendly in his dealings with us. He speaks to us on the street. He stops and talks to us when he visits the shops or offices about our jobs, our youngsters. He seems interested in us as individuals.” Customers and social acquaintances liked him.

It is a fact full of meaning that his most frequent comment was and is, “I like people.” He also liked young people, children, sports, and dogs. Let me tell you a story about him:

Next door to this man lived a couple who were childless, but they had adopted a little boy. One Saturday afternoon during the time this business executive was vice-president of his company, he was standing by the back fence of his home. Looking over into the next yard, he saw the small boy. He fell into conversation with the lad, and finally asked: “If you could have anything you wanted, what would you ask for?” “A kite,” the boy replied.

Now, you’d expect that in such a situation an important businessman would send someone to town to buy the boy a kite. But not our friend. He said, “Come on over here, Sonny, and you and I will make a kite.” The boy came over, and the man of fifty and the boy of five spent an interesting half afternoon making the kite.

This may seem to be a slight story, but does it not offer some light on why this man had many friends pulling for him when the big turning point came in his life?

The story of this executive’s business success seems to illustrate the principle set forth by the psychologist, Dr. Alfred Adler: “It will appear in the end that we have no problems in our lives but social problems; and those problems can be solved only if we are interested in others.”

More directly, does it not illustrate the very practical point that people make or break you?

A young woman threw herself from a high building in San Francisco.

“I have no friends,” she had told companions. “Life isn’t worth living.”

She was young. Life was before her with all its possibilities of happiness and success. Why did she end her life?

She thought she was the victim of circumstances and events. Investigation showed she led a self-centered life. Unthinking, unmindful of the people with whom she lived—unmindful of the fact that people could make or break her. She was one of the vast number of human beings who fail to act in their own best interests. Eventually she found herself alone, with no friends to turn to. She resorted to drink, finally to suicide.

You surely have read of many another case of suicide committed because the unfortunate person had no one to whom he or she could turn in time of crisis. In fact, except for ill health, is not suicide nearly always the result of some failure in human relations? Are not human relations often actually a matter of life or death?

People make or break us. Other people, their opinions of us, their actions toward us determine the degree of success we enjoy.

Dean M. P. O’Brien of the College of Engineering, University of California, once said, “Our records indicate we don’t have any engineering graduates who fail because of lack of technical skill. Those who do not get ahead have failed almost entirely because they didn’t know how to get along with people and specially with difficult people. Of course, in engineering a man must have the technical know-how; he must be reliable, energetic, and honest; but beyond that, knowledge of human nature, tact, and diplomacy are necessary for any substantial success he may attain.”

If that is true in engineering, think how much more important good human relations are in selling and other such jobs; how much more important in social and family life.

A. T. Mcrcier, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, says, “Technical skill is seldom sufficient for marked success. Industrial leaden find it relatively easy to obtain technically skilled workers; but the great need at the top is for men who can organize, direct, inspire, and harmonize the work of others. In selling and service work, courtesy and consideration for others are the first requirements of success.”

Think clearly about your own experience. Your success, any success you’ve had in business or social life, was due to what certain people thought of you, wasn’t it? Of course you had to be efficient and effective. But beyond that, people’s good opinion translated into action made the success.

Or failure? People’s poor opinion, justified or not, can fire a man and make him lose out. “By far more persons lose their jobs because of some personal eccentricity than for lack of skill or technical knowledge,” says Max Shoen, head of the Department of Education and Psychology of Carnegie Institute of Technology.

What makes any one of us happy or sad? Opinions of other people. We may think we are happy over an achievement we feel we have made alone, singlehanded; but what really made us happy is the approbation, the approval, the admiration of other people. This is true not only in business life, but also in our social and family relations.

Let’s sum up the whole matter this way:

  1. Our success and happiness depend upon the attitude and actions of other people toward us.
  2. This attitude is determined by our control of our own attitudes toward other people.
  3. We can make our attitude toward others just about what we want it to be.

Anyone can change and improve his habits in dealing with people, regardless of his age. This change will require thought and persistence, but after the first breaking through of existing habits, it is easy; it’s really a pleasure, and it will become easier and easier as we go along. At the same time the benefits will pile up like a snowball rolling down hill.

Finally, let’s note that the responsibility for good relations with other people rests with us individually. Let’s not try to dodge the responsibility by criticizing others or alibiing ourselves. Rather, let’s go out positively and actively to bring other people and their interests into harmony with us and our interests.

Let us see now if we agree on these points:

1. We can set the tone or nature of our dealings with difficult people by going out to them with a friendly word or act, first, before the other persons act.

2. The habit of disputing with people over small issues may cause a person to lose his friends.

3. Human relations may be a matter of life and death.

4. Liking people is the beginning of good human relations.

5. The chief cause of a person’s losing his job is inability to get along with others.

6. Our success and happiness depend upon the attitude and actions of other people toward us.

7. The attitude of other people is determined by our control of our own attitude toward them.

8. We can make our attitude toward others whatever we want it to be.

So, the final answer to this question that “How to Deal with Difficult People?” is in one sentence:

“Kill ‘em with kindness.”

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