The Surprising Way to Handle Jerks Effectively
Being Nice to the People Who Make You Crazy May Be the Most Effective Way to Get What YOU Want
When my kids were younger, there was a dynamic that happened between my daughter and one of her brothers. Typical sibling stuff.
When he was subconsciously feeling like he wasn’t getting enough attention, he had two tactics he used to get people to pay attention to him. The first was to asks me for a hug. The second was to he turns to whoever was physically closest to him and push their buttons until they reacted.
My son is talented and persistent and usually succeeded in pushing people’s buttons when he was motivated to do so. Before my daughter had learned how to resist, she would take the bait, react to his poking, and take his insults personally. She often came to me crying.
I would console her and give her some evidence to counter his words. And when she was calmer, I would explore the alternatives.
I made the following points:
• He was baiting her. She had learn to be a smart fish and not take the bait.
• She knew that arguing with him made things worse, so she needed to not respond aloud, but she could still use the voice inside her head to remind herself that he wasn’t right.
• What he was saying wasn’t about her. It was about him wanting attention and not knowing any better ways to get it.
• She could diffuse him by ignoring the content of what he was saying and giving him positive attention even when she was mad at him.
Her reaction was the traditional, “But he’s being mean to me. Why should I have to be nice to him?”
What I said was, “You don’t have to be nice to him. And, if you want him to stop bothering you and leave you alone, being nice to him is the fastest way to get him to change his behaviour.”
I would tell her that I would talk to him about the impact his behavior was having on her and do what I could to convince him to change his behavior, but that it would probably take longer than she wanted for him to change because he was getting what he wanted when she reacted.
I give the same advice to adults when they are tempted to exact revenge on someone who is irritating them. The details are different, but the dynamic is common. The other person isn’t taking responsibility for their part of this problem. I am upset. Why should I have to be the one to help them deescalate?
Waiting for the Other Person to Take Responsibility Gives Them Your Power
You don’t have to help them deescalate.
You don’t even have to work on calming your own upset.
You get to choose.
But, if you insist that the other person goes first, there is nothing you can do unless and until they decide to take deescalating action. They may never change. If you insist that they go first, you are trapped by their choices. They have all the power.
If you are willing to consider being the first to offer an olive branch, you give yourself the power to proactively influence the situation.
That said, letting go of anger is hard. Anger is a secondary emotion, a response to some kind of emotional injury. Anger is the energy the body uses to avoid getting hurt again. The hurt, upset, disappointment that will come to the surface once the anger is released. And feeling those feelings is never fun. The big question is whether you want something else more than you are afraid of dealing with discomfort.
If you need someone else to cooperate with you in order to achieve a goal of yours, you need to find a way to influence them.
When was the last time you willingly changed for someone who was telling you how much you drive them crazy?
People are generally not open to influence unless they believe that you understand where they are coming from and that you are working with them not against them.
When I talk to my clients about this, the most frequent objection I hear is, “But how can I do that and still hold a boundary that doesn’t require me to tolerate the bad behaviour?” The only way to not tolerate bad behavior is to do what you can to influence the other person to change their behavior. And that usually requires giving them a way to meet their needs that doesn’t involve the behavior you want them to change or leaving the relationship.
I invite you to get curious about the annoying people in your life.
Assume that their annoying behaviour is an unskillful attempt to get something.
What might they be trying to get?
Might it be possible for you to give it to them in a way that feels like it respects you and your needs?
How might it help you get what you want if you give up the need for revenge about being upset by them?