Is he really such a jerk?
A tip for dealing with difficult people
Are there persons in your life who inflame you and leave you a quivering jelly of frustration and indignation? You can develop ulcers. Or you can reframe the situation.
Here is a story that illustrates it beautifully. It is a true story.
The school was in a depressed neighborhood and had many ‘at risk’ children. Jason had a pretty decent record but, of late, seemed to be slipping into the same spiral of shifty rootlessness that affected so many of the adolescent youths.
Julie was a dedicated teacher and genuinely wanted to make a difference in the life of ‘her’ kids. But she found it harder and harder to keep her enthusiasm up. Many of her ‘kids’ were physically big and imposing and last week one of them hit her when she remonstrated with him. He would have done more violence if his classmates had not restrained him. She had never felt fear before but now it walked before her and after her. She wondered if this was how veterans from war torn countries felt.
Jason had his head down when she entered her class. He did not look up. He had been dozing a lot of late and she took it as another sign of his flouting her authority. She asked him a question. He did not reply. A soft snore emanated from him as if he were deliberately provoking her.
Whether deliberate or not it worked. She walked up to him and asked him the same question in a louder, confrontational manner.
He jerked his head up and there was fury in his eyes. “Leave me alone,” he shouted.
She fled from the classroom and went straight to the principal’s office. Two burly security officers escorted Jason out of school premises.
She pressed for indefinite suspension. She was too afraid of facing Jason again. Her face still hurt from the blow she had received last week.
A routine case of discipline in yet another inner-city school, right? But there is more to this one.
One of the older teachers asked Julie and the principal to hold off on any further action for 24 hours while he looked into the matter.
He met with both of them the next day.
Jason’s father was in jail and had been for years. His mother was struggling to keep Jason and his sister in school while fighting her own addiction. She was unwise in her choice of boyfriends and one of them had battered her.
For the last several days Jason had been caring for his sister and his mother and still trying to keep up with his schoolwork.
The last night had been trying. His sister was running a fever and had been up all night. Jason tended to her and to his mother who was comatose from a drinking binge. Then he came to school and fell asleep from sheer tiredness. He snapped when woken. He desperately needed rest and could not control himself.
“We should give him a medal,” said the older teacher, “But we were about to throw him out and further wreck his life.”
This particular story has a happy ending.
The senior teacher and Julie met with Jason together. Julie shared what it felt like to be knocked down by the student and the fear it engendered. Jason spoke about the helplessness he felt as all the adults in his life – who should have been role-models – became parasites sucking energy out of him.
A bond developed between Julie and Jason. She became his advocate, was able to find rehab resource for his mother and counseled him through difficult times till he graduated.
The real lesson is in why Julie and Jason came so close to a conflict where they would both have been losers. Each of them saw the other through the prism of their own experience and neither recognized that this is what they were doing.
Are you confronting behavior that enrages you? Think about plausible scenarios where this behavior could actually be reasonable.
Don’t get hung up on whether the scenario you construct is ‘true’. It does not matter in the slightest whether or not it is. The act of doing this opens you up. That is the benefit.
You perceive the situation differently and operate from a different emotional domain. And because you are open to the possibility that the other person could have a valid point, your interaction will be different. And the results will be pleasantly surprising.
Does this work all the time? Of course not. But it works often enough that your life will become significantly better.