The Esquire Guy on Dealing With Difficult People
Join us Dec 20. for our free webinar on attracting top talent, fueling productivity and building a brag-worthy culture. Register Now »
Can you believe this guy? Never acknowledges your presence. Interrupts you in meetings. Yawns in your face. Mocks your wardrobe. Smacks his gum. Talks to you like you're 8 years old. Keeps asking to borrow two dollars even though the Cheez-It packs in the vending machine are only 95 cents. Never pays you back. Slaps you on the back while you're drinking coffee. Exists on the earth. Haunts your dreams.
You gonna respond to all that offense? Of course you are. But you're not going to reveal that you can't stand the guy. You're not going to act annoyed. Acting annoyed or put upon or beleaguered suggests that you have lost some control, that you've been thrown off your game.
In business, restraint is the only means of disarming the jerk.
(That and, you know, firing, ending your partnership with or having the jerk arrested for stealing your money and slapping you all the time. But for the purposes of this column, let's assume your counterpart must, for professional reasons, remain in your universe.)
Staying Clean When Things Get Dirty
Etiquette is about taking the high road. But when dealing with someone you can't stand, it's not enough to take the high road. You want to be in a car on that high road. Better yet: a large truck. Windows up. Both hands on the wheel. You want to stay clean. You don't want to provide the other party with any evidence that you can be a jerk yourself. If the person's behavior is actually sinister, then you're only falling into their trap. And there's a lot at stake when you fight jerkiness with jerkiness.
Remember that you might be in the truck, but (and this metaphor is about to get a lot more strained) you're pulling a trailer that is your business and your reputation. Big trailer. Huge. With fragile cargo.
"For me, it's the 10-second rule--it's not doing anything on the spot," says Gianna Provenzano, CEO of Gianna and Company, a Los Angeles-based wedding- and event-planning business. "Once you say something, you can't pull it back in. It's about picking your fights."
Ten seconds at a minimum. We'd suggest 20, even 30. A minute. Maybe an hour. In business, 80 percent of responding appropriately is not responding at all. What we're talking about is underreacting.
The problem with any kind of talking in a professional environment is that you're giving up your position. And when you act indignant, your position is revealed to be a swamp of weakness and bad temper. An overt response is almost always a mistake. You might be in a swamp of indignation, but you don't want to reveal that.
You're going to regret doing battle. And you're going to regret it because a battle can happen only when someone gets to win. But there's no winning among associates. As Tom Junod, my colleague and longtime Esquire writer, said in his 2011 essay "A Philosophy of Fighting": "Anyone can win ... if they're willing to win at the cost of love and respect. The question is who can abstain from winning, who can resist the temptation of winning." Winning is what businesses do. Navigating is what businesspeople do. An interpersonal issue is never conquered; it's traversed.
If the first thing to do is shut up, the second thing to do is think of a few things that might be causing the other person to behave in a way that you can't stand. Maybe they lost a lot of money at the dog track. Maybe their father never said "I love you." Maybe their underpants are literally, somehow, in defiance of the laws of physics, in some sort of wad. This will cut through your outrage and recalibrate you back to the sympathetic human being you are. And once you're recalibrated, you should do this: Stare.
Bemused is the reaction you're going for. Say "Huh" the same way you would say it if you were walking down the street and saw a Chihuahua walking on its hind legs while wearing a sailor suit.
You know, "Huh." You're not smiling. You're not frowning. You're nonplussed. The series of questions implied by your furrowed brow is: What's wrong with you? Why would you behave in such a manner? Where does one find such a tiny sailor outfit? Bewilderment is underrated. It places the onus on the offender to answer a question, without you having to ask it.
It's about breaking the expectation of the offending party, according to Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder and COO of BlogHer, a women-focused cross-platform media network: "It's all about 'hands,' as Seinfeld would say. If you can't have the upper hand, you at least have the equal hand. It's very psychological. You're trying to disarm their usual pattern."
Is it passive-aggressive? Of course it is. But in the relatively dignified environment of business, this is the only kind of aggressiveness available to you. So employ it.
It's an elegant thing, disrupting the jerk. The offender has pushed things to a state of imbalance. Your subtly expressed bewilderment will recalibrate the situation. And the calibration is exclusively in your favor. You'll be in an advantageous position: free to go about your business.
Key Technical Matters
Fight the urge to fight--verbally or physically.
Psychologically is fine.
When talking to someone you can't stand, never use the phrase, "I have to be honest." What follows won't be pretty, and honesty isn't necessarily the right approach.
Make a list of the things you don't like about the person.
Cross off the things that are minor nuisances.
If there are more than five things still on the list, you may, in fact, be dealing with a jerk.
If there are more than 10 things still on the list, you may, in fact, be dealing with a sociopath.
To determine if the person you can't stand is your enemy, say the person's name out loud. If you are squinting and shaking your fist, the person is your enemy.
If you are squinting, shaking your fist and sneering, then the person is your archenemy.
If you are squinting, shaking your first, sneering and stroking a white cat, then you are an evil genius in a James Bond movie, and you need to relax.
The Jerk Spectrum