The Jerk Factor

Verla--head onIs it my imagination or is the world becoming a meaner place? Since time began, there have always been wars—the big kind with tanks and Drones and missiles and the more personal kind that fall under labels like domestic violence or bullying. They all exact a horrible price and are not to be lightly dismissed, but I’m talking about a rise in everyday meanness.

We’re living in tough times. If you aren’t personally affected by our nation’s economic meltdown, you probably interact every day with people who are being affected. Some respond with amazing grace and resilience. But others? Well, Amazon currently carries 6,490 different books on conflict resolution, which indicates there are a lot of difficult, unhappy people in the world who may have us in their line of fire.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with them. I once had a hairdresser who insisted she could tell whether a new client was going to difficult by the shoes they wore. She developed a whole system for interacting with everyone from Cowboy Boots Guy to Ballet Slippers Suburban Princess. Seriously!

While her system seemed ridiculous, it was actually based on a couple basic truths. Difficult people don’t really care what you think. Your happiness is not on their radar. So if you’re dealing with a jerk, it’s you who will have to adapt.

Here are some strategies that may help:

Accept reality. I used to think if I just explained to an extremely challenging person how their behavior was hurtful or counter-productive, they would thank me for my honesty and rush to change their behavior. Mmmm…not so much. But we keep trying, certain that with enough patience and explanation they will change. Fuhgedaboutit! It’s a fool’s errand. Deal with the way things really are.

Ask yourself, “Whose problem is this? Are you responsible for any part of the problem? You are responsible for how you treat others and how you allow others to treat you. But, unless you’re their boss, you are not responsible for setting them straight, changing their behavior or changing their faulty perception that you are the problem. Mark Twain said, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” It’s their problem and you may not be able to fix it. Let it go.

Establish good boundaries.  Dr. Henry Cloud uses the metaphor of a house to explain good relational boundaries. Figuratively speaking, trustworthy friends and family are welcome in the kitchen at your table. Unsafe people should never be allowed past the front porch. Don’t give difficult people power over your mental or emotional well-being.

Look at difficult people through God’s eyes. If God was willing to sacrifice His only son for someone who has deeply wounded us—sometimes without cause—it must be because He sees something we don’t see. Ask Him to show you this person through His lens. Even difficult people matter to God.

Thank God for them. Difficult people show us what life looks like when God is not in control of a person’s behavior. It can expose the condition of our own hearts and how quickly our own mean streak can rise up to push back. Praying for those who have done us harm keeps our own hearts soft and sometimes can even changes things.

For four years I work for the NBC radio affiliate in Chicago as a reporter and news anchor. My editor was a crusty old-school guy who considered it his personal mission to make miserable the lives of the on-air talent. He was relentless. Once he reamed me out so severely in front of the entire newsroom staff that one of the sound engineers took me aside and said only half in jest, “I’ve got a gun in my truck.”

Finally, in desperation, I decided every time he launched a tirade against me I would silently pray for him. It wasn’t that I was super spiritual or even believed my prayers would change him. I was simply trying to avoid doing hard time! I eventually accepted a job at another radio station and figured he was out of my life forever.

One day I received a totally unexpected phone call from him. He was leaving NBC to start his own business and wanted me to come and work for him! Really!

What shocked me even more was my reaction to the call, which was… no reaction. He no longer hooked me. I didn’t have to reform him or make him understand. I didn’t have to prove I was right or fight back. He was just a guy with a job offer, which I politely declined.

Jerks may never change. But if we change, I wonder if meanness in the world would lose some steam.

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