If You're Throwing Dirt, You're Losing Ground

When you throw dirt, all you do is lose ground.

When I look at the history of mankind, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come in technology. It’s awesome. Figuratively speaking, we’ve come millions of miles.

When it comes to the history of human relations, however, we’ve hardly taken a step. The same problems that plagued people in ancient times are still with us today. People are still rude, selfish, insensitive, and difficult — some of the time.

In fact, one University of North Carolina survey found that 78% of the respondents think incivility has increased in the last decade. And every one of the respondents could cite examples of co-workers who had treated them disrespectfully.

To some extent, the media likes to glamorize examples of poor human relations. Read bumper strips. You’ll find lots of rude comments made by difficult people. I read one that said, “I like you because you remind me of when I was young and stupid!”

And watch the sitcoms. I remember one scene where an answering machine said, “I’m probably here. I’m just avoiding someone I don’t like. Leave your name and number. If I don’t call you back, it’s you.”

Now I’ll have to admit there have been times I would have liked to use such a message. I’m sure the same is true for you. The problem is it doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t work.

As today’s Tip suggests, when you throw dirt, all you do is lose ground. That same University of North Carolina survey documented that. They found that incivility in the workplace definitely hurts productivity.

As their results were reported in Industry Week and The Dallas Morning News, 53% of the respondents said they lost work time worrying about a past or future confrontation with a co-worker. 37% said a hostile confrontation caused them to reduce their commitment to the organization. 28% said they lost work time because they avoided the person with whom they had a confrontation. And 22% said they put less effort into their work because of a confrontation with a co-worker.

Unfortunately, we’re forced to work with difficult people. That’s life. Even though we may not like certain people or the situation they put us in, there are some things we can do.

TAKE AN HONEST LOOK AT YOURSELF. I remember one man who left job after job because he found his co-workers to be annoying. Eventually, he discovered that when he spoke he gave off an aura of being easily flustered. So, of course, some of his less-than-kind colleagues took a subconscious delight in flustering him.

When he discovered this about himself, he started to work on his self-confidence and started to practice relaxation exercises. He became less and less flustered. As he changed, his co-workers also changed. They became more positive and less difficult.

If people around you are difficult, take a moment to take an honest look at yourself. Is it possible that you’re doing something that contributes to their difficult behavior? Don’t automatically assume that you’re totally innocent, and they’re totally to blame.

Then FIND A POINT OF ENTRY. There is always a way to get into the hearts of difficult people. It’s like rowing around a mountainous island, looking for a place to land. You may not find the landing place immediately, but it’s there. It just takes a bit of patience while you search for the point of entry.

It’s the same with people. Their mountains, their blockades, their annoying behaviors often come from some pain they’re suffering.

It’s like the young minister who was assigned to a New England church. A bossy woman lived next to the church, a woman who acted as though she owned the place. In fact, whenever the minister wanted to get in the church, he had to ask her for the key.

The first time he met her, he introduced himself as the new minister. She became indignant and said, “Oh no you’re not!”

In fact, she went around telling everyone that this new guy was too young and inexperienced. He didn’t even look as if he had enough sense to come in from the rain. And his first sermon in that church, she told everyone, wasn’t worth much.

The young man decided to look for his point of entry, to look for a way to win her over. So he went over to her house as she was busy baking cookies. He couldn’t help but say how good they smelled.

“So you like the smell,” she said rudely. With reluctance she gave him one. After he finished it, he commented, “That’s wonderful!” So at his request she gave him another one.

“You don’t mind asking for what you want, do you?” she asked. But then she pushed the whole plate of cookies within his reach.

“I hear you lost your boy when he was my age,” the young man said. “You must have been lonely all these years.”

The woman nodded. “I still make these cookies because he liked them.” He said, “I like them, too.” And then he was silent.

That started them off on a new relationship. The young minister said she became a cherished, lifelong friend. She would bring him into her kitchen, give him some advice, and feed him. Indeed, she showed him how to win over all the other folks in the congregation.

It’s so easy to react to the behavior of difficult people. After all, it’s difficult. It does hurt. We can judge people’s methods, but we need to be very careful about judging their motives.

It also helps to LOOK FOR THE LESSON THAT CAN BE LEARNED FROM EACH DIFFICULT PERSON. Instead of wasting your energy on being annoyed or getting defensive, focus on the lesson that can be learned when you’re working with difficult people.

One prominent businesswoman told me about her approach. She said, “I started with nothing. My parents were so poor that I was forced to drop out of school and start working. But now I am the President of the Board of Trustees of a university. I have learned life’s lessons, not from schools, but from people. Everyone has something to teach me.”

I was told the same thing by one of the Vice Presidents of a company for which I was speaking. He said, “Whenever a difficult person crosses my path, I ask myself, ‘What can I learn from this person’?” He said, “Perhaps that person was put in my path to teach me patience or give me a chance to practice my skills in assertive communication.” I think it’s a great philosophy and a very helpful approach.

Finally, TAKE YOUR TIME, AND THINK BEFORE YOU RESPOND TO A DIFFICULT PERSON. Before you say or do anything, figure out if it’s worth it. How much time and energy do you want to spend on that person and his or her behavior? Sometimes you’ll want to spend a lot, other times not.

Just don’t get pulled into a hissing contest. You can go back and forth forever as to who did what, who’s to blame, and who started it. It doesn’t matter! WORRYING ABOUT WHAT’S RIGHT IS ALWAYS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORRYING ABOUT WHO’S RIGHT.

In other words, be a little careful before you offer advice. It’s like the time Billie Burke, a famous actress from a bygone era, was on a transatlantic cruise. She noticed a gentleman suffering from a bad cold.

“Are you uncomfortable?” she asked sympathetically. He nodded.

“I’ll tell you just what to do for it,” said Billie. “Go back to your stateroom; drink lots of orange juice, and take two aspirin. Cover yourself with all the blankets you can find. Sweat the cold out. I know what I’m talking about. I’m Billie Burke from Hollywood.”

The man smiled warmly and introduced himself in return. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m Dr. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic.”

Action:  Select a difficult person in your life as a personal challenge. Study that person, looking for your “point of entry.” Find some way to connect with the person in a positive way.  You don’t have to become the best of friends. You don’t have to spend a lot of time together. Just find a way to work together that is positive and productive for both of you.