Around the time my son, Ben, turned 14, war broke out over his room. The louder I nagged, the bigger the pile of sweaty clothes and mouldy dishes that snaked across the floor like the tentacles of a sci-fi monster. My rage always peaked in the morning, when Ben swaggered out of his lair to tie up our only bathroom for the next half-hour. I would shout, ‘If you’re such a clean freak, why can’t you clean up your bleeping room?’
To my amazement, it was Ben who was the peacemaker on the bleeping room. If I got off his case, he’d keep the door closed, do his laundry and stop taking dishes upstairs. Things calmed down right away. Why hadn’t I come up with that idea? Quite simply, I’d lost perspective. In my determination to win, I had let a messy room trump more important things, like the mounting tension level in our home. My son had just taught me that some battles aren’t worth fighting. Years later, in the biggest job of my life, that lesson helped me to focus on the issues that mattered instead of the annoying distractions. I’ve never had a better mentor than my crazy-making teen.
How difficult people can be mentors
Like most people, I once pictured mentors as warm, fuzzy types, always ready to support and encourage. But there’s a place in every life for the unlikely mentors who tease out your best by relentlessly dishing out their worst. Sometimes it takes a fault-finding boss, meddlesome parent or customer from hell to expose the limits of your emotional tool kit’and force you to try something new. Says Wendy Fredricks, a Toronto psychotherapist, ‘If you look closely at yourself in the presence of a difficult person, you’ll see that your own issues are being activated. Once you recognize the pattern, the situation will be easier to manage.’
A friend of mine, Judy Farrant, told me recently how she learned that lesson. As a 25-year-old flight attendant, she had a run-in with a well-known TV actor who was mad as hell that mechanical problems were delaying his trip. Farrant’s attempt to calm him down (‘You wouldn’t want us to leave until everything worked, would you?’) only riled him further. He called her a dimwit and accused her of parroting the company line. Unstrung by the insult to her intelligence, Farrant retreated to the bathroom in tears. Her superior later pointed out that, in the actor’s eyes, she had insulted him with a patronizing comment. He had a huge ego that demanded attention. There was a way to head off the tirade: acknowledge his frustration and ask if there was anything she could do for him. Farrant never again met a customer she couldn’t handle. And while she didn’t know it at the time, the angry actor had set her on course for what would one day become her career: helping companies serve customers better.
Every time you let someone drive you to distraction, your self-esteem takes a beating. You feel so powerless and put upon, the very sight of an email from a certain person can get you muttering through gritted teeth, ‘What’s it going to be this time?’ You start to like yourself even less than the torrent of bad behaviour you’re convinced the other person will unleash. You’ve written the script in your head, so you both end up playing the same tiresome parts. It’s time to break the cycle. Here are some tips:
Keep an open mind
I once had a colleague who couldn’t seem to sign off on anything. Every time we reached an agreement, she would email me with one more quibble. Convinced that she didn’t respect me or our working relationship, I would fire off a huffy response that created distrust between us. We got back on track when I started walking down the hall to talk things through in person. Face to face, I could see her commitment to the results we both wanted.
What cranky people want, explains Fredricks, is what everyone wants’to be seen and heard. But they may lack the emotional intelligence to make their needs known without causing irritation. One woman I know, ‘Rachel,’ has a cousin with schizophrenia, ‘Sarah,’ who is frequently off her medication. Sarah’s demands for attention and insistence on getting her way have been pushing Rachel’s buttons since childhood. Thinking they were lifelong friends, Sarah would call Rachel constantly to vent about imaginary dramas. The harder Rachel tried to distance herself, the more persistent Sarah became, to the point that she was knocking at Rachel’s front door unannounced. At last Rachel realized that the way to keep Sarah in check was to give her small doses of total attention. She started taking Sarah out to lunch, always making it clear that she had an appointment afterwards. Now Sarah feels calmer and Rachel doesn’t shudder when the phone rings.
Ask yourself, ‘What can I learn?’
Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple, was notorious for berating employees over trifles and humiliating them in front of others. But many people on his team felt grateful to be the subject of his relentless creative quest’and honoured when they met his exacting standards. As one former colleague told Forbes, ‘There are two components to giving employees great feedback. It takes someone who has the taste to know when you did great or lousy, and it takes someone who’s blunt enough to tell you.’
I used to love talking with my mother’except when she called me to fret about my sister. Every time, I felt pressured to take sides in a conflict that was none of my business. But if I tried to change the subject, my mother protested with a catch in her voice that pulled me into caretaker mode. I finally found the courage to say, ‘Mother, I love you both and feel caught in the middle when you raise this with me. It’s time for you to find a new sounding board, because I’m through playing that role.’ My mother got the message. Now that she’s no longer around, it’s the happy memories of our phone calls that are front and centre.