Unpleasant people and what we do

  • Well, if I’m trying to climb back on the blogging wagon, so to speak, I suppose I could do a lot worse than talk about a meeting — maybe it would be more accurate to say ‘altercation’ — that I had on the job with an angry, unhappy woman. It happened over a week ago, and I find I just can’t quite get over it. I wonder why that is, and I wonder how I could do better next time.

    I wonder if I have to go into much detail. I figure that by the time any of us have lived very long, particularly if we have had typical dayjobs, we acquire our own collection of sad stories. But here are the basics: I went to a board meeting as a consultant, and this woman — I’ll call her Arlene, since I don’t know anybody by that name — was a stranger to me. She stood up and at a completely inappropriate time in the meeting, utterly denounced the product that Greg and I make for the board as a waste of money. It was a complete shock to me, although it was obvious she had no idea who I was or why I would care. It would have been like a knife in my flesh if the board had seemed inclined to listen, since this client is one of our most important. But it was obvious that either because of past history or making a hash of her case, no one was taking her seriously. And so she didn’t advance her cause at all, and quite a few people came up to me immediately when the meeting adjourned for lunch to tell me not to worry.

    I was trying not to worry, but I was shaken and thinking only of how much I needed to call Greg and tell him what happened. But then, Arlene was suddenly there in the parking lot next to me. She briefly introduced herself and then — unbelievably — tried to pressure me in private to agree with her that our product was unacceptable. She was standing too close and I was backed up against my car — definitely one of those ‘invading your space’ situations. She was talking too abruptly and much too directly, given that she wanted me to commit professional hara-kiri. If I’d been 20 years younger, I think I might have fallen apart and either lost my temper or been terrified and said something stupid.

    But I’m not 20 years younger, and, sad to say, I’ve seen too many people like this. When I looked her straight in the eye, I saw a kind of wildness in her — boiling emotion, boiling need, even desperation for… what? Telling Greg about it later, I asked his opinion: What in the world had she hoped to accomplish by this ridiculous assault on me that was much too personal to be professional? What was the best thing that could have come out of it?

    “Oh, that’s easy,” Greg said. “She could’ve made you cry.”

    That’s the same conclusion that I came to. What makes people like this into people like this? Why would you use little business matters that are here today and gone tomorrow as blunt instruments to try to make a stranger — a grown woman — cry?

    That’s the part I keep thinking about, because I don’t have a good answer. I think after the intervening days, I have sympathy because, as a church father said, “everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle.” I’ll never know her battle. But sympathy isn’t enough.

    I have pity, but there I’m reminded of another story of the fathers. The story goes that at a monastery, a visiting abbot saw one humble monk who was thoroughly maligned by his brothers and yet gave no reply. When the abbot asked him how he managed, he said, “They don’t bother me, Father. They are only barking dogs to me.” And the abbot was very saddened and told his companion that the monk not only hadn’t progressed far in the faith, but had fallen into error. Because people aren’t dogs, and just disregarding them in order to maintain equilibrium is understandable, but not virtuous.

    I have a suspicion that what is missing in my makeup is a real detachment from personal attacks. And of course, that most troubling thing — love. It always seem to be in such short supply, and yet I’ve been loved so greatly.

    So at the end, I’m in wonder at my own littleness and at the littleness of another. It’s been quite a lot to mull over.

3 Responses and Counting...

  • Mimi 05.03.2009

    Wow what brilliant thoughts about an unsettling situation. Prayers and hugs
    (it is good to see you!)

  • s-p

    It will probably be little comfort, but the thing I've discovered over the years is there is a direct correlation between how socially inappropriately people act and how "inappropriately" you have to deal with them to get them to understand what you are saying/doing. What would be ghastly behavior to a "normal" person is just "what is" to someone like that. I used to lay awake at nights worrying and ruminating about how rude I was to someone like that, but I also laid awake at night ruminating about, when I was polite and composed, that they escalated and didn't get what I was trying to say and I felt beat up and violated. So for normal people its a no win. On a professional level it sounds like her co-workers have her number, so you don't have to worry there. On a personal level, there's nothing wrong with just looking her in the eye and saying, "That's not my decision to make, it is your company's. When they tell me I'm pointless, then I'm pointless." Then get in your car and drive home. Even Jesus and St. Paul spoke out when slapped down unjustly by a peon when they were on trial. There's nothing unchristian about assertiveness, there is something unchristian about not having any compassion for someone who is obviously severely damaged, Basically, you don't throw them under the bus to their peers, but you don't have to let them drive the bus over you either. Her gift to you as a human being is she touched a raw spot that might need some healing. You can work on you even if you can't work on or with her.

  • s-p:
    Wow, there's a lot of good stuff in there. I especially like the last few sentences, which I may have to write up and make into a cross-stitch to hang on my wall.

    You're spot on about the other people in the room. They really didn't like what she was doing, and that gave me some peace. The other peace I've found when it comes to these kinds of business dealings is to consider always that people are talking about a third entity — the Business — that isn't in the room and definitely isn't me. So even if she meant me to take offense, I was able to recall that (as you say) SHE wasn't my client and so her critique was fairly irrelevant.

    It could've gone worse for her. I felt victorious because I stayed neutral. If it had been Greg at the meeting, however, she would have heard some Pure Truth that would've made her ears bleed, and it would've been done with such complete charm that she wouldn't know what to say. He has a gift.

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