2011-01-17

Dealing with hostile people

Dealing with hostile people is difficult, because they often expect to be loved for hating you, much like a child communicates with a parent. But you are not their parent and thus should not have to put up with their hostility. Here are a few tips that make things easier for everyone involved.
  • If someone complains, they often don’t even want the issue fixed, just to be heard. Thus, you should always let them make their case before proposing a solution (if any). There is a lot less pressure on you than you think! Not letting it get to you helps both parties, but is not easy. An anecdote that made this clear to me was the following.
    A woman stands at the cash register and asks for a plastic bag. The owner, sitting behind the register, hands her one. She loudly complains about the bag being broken. He apologetically offers to give her a new one and mentions that he has to pay for each one of them himself. She immediately becomes quiet and goes “no, no, that’s OK, I just needed to say it.” Note that there is no right or wrong here, it is just an illustration of the above mentioned principle.
  • In a similar vein to the previous point, a great way to release tension is to say that you are sorry and postpone blaming the other party (even if it is justified). This helps them to apologize. That said, there are people who apologize too much. You should only take full responsibility for your own faults (which is an act of self-empowerment) and not submissively put all the blame on yourself.
  • Getting the energy level down: If the other person is very agitated, it helps to initially meet them at their energy level, without becoming offensive. You can raise your voice and say things like “I’m not happy with the situation, either”. What you should not say is “calm down” or “hey, take it easy”.
  • Getting to the root of hostility: Hostile behavior is often driven by fears. Obviously, people don’t talk about those fears and sometimes are not even aware of them. If you can recognize the fears, you can respond properly, at the level of the fears. Otherwise, you will just attack back (possibly because fears of your own have been triggered) and get nowhere.
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