Have you ever encountered mean people? Maybe they aren’t even mean all the time, but sometimes the words they use just punch you in the gut. Whether it’s careless or intentional, we’ve probably all experienced mean people. Hopefully those encounters are few and far between.
But sometimes there’s a mean person in your life. A stationary source of periodic meanness. It could be a co-worker, a friend, a family member, a business acquaintance, but it’s someone who makes a regular appearance in your life. What do you do with mean people? How do you cope?
It’s frustrating, and there is no silver bullet, but I got to thinking about conversations I’ve had lately on this exact issue. In fact, just last week a friend shared with me the story of a mean colleague. The “mean” person wasn’t always prickly, but when he was, he really shook my friend’s self-worth and confidence. And after hearing the words he used in his conversation, there was no ambiguity that he was being needlessly mean. So regardless of the source, there are a few things I am learning through these conversations that can help.
First, stand up for yourself. You do not have to respond in anger or belligerently, but you respond and refuse to take the attacks. You are not the mean person (hopefully), so don’t respond in kind. But you must respond. Depending on whether this is a work or personal relationship, the frankness and logistics will change. For a personal relationship, a dear friend of mine said this is how she handled mean words: Look, what you are saying right now is ridiculous. You can not treat me this way. I am not allowing it. I don’t know what is causing you to act this way, but it is NOT me. So, I’m going to step away from you. If you get to the point that you want to apologize, I’m ready to listen, but until then I’m removing myself. Now with a work colleague, that would have to be pared down to something more professional: I hear that you are frustrated and angry. I am sorry that you feel so upset, but I am not the reason and you can not treat me this way. I know these facts [insert situation appropriate response] that I can provide you with to help the frustrating situation, but I am not going to allow myself to be berated. So, let’s step back and reconvene when emotions are cooler.
I realize the latter sounds idealistic. I know it’s not attainable in every professional situation. But I do strongly believe that you must not allow people to call you names, demean you, undercut you, or yell/scream at you. Do you remember that line from Pretty Woman where Richard Gere was complimenting Julia Roberts and she said, “The bad things are easier to believe”? Oh heavens, that’s sad but true. In researching this, I found studies that said anywhere from 2 to 10 positive words or comments were needed to counteract one negative. It’s the negativity bias of our brain. That means that we can’t live in a constant state of people being mean and saying harsh things without beginning to believe it. So put an end to it.
Second, there are some other things you can do to help your disposition in the immediate. My friend who was struggling with a colleague smiles. She will just go in her office and smile for a few minutes and it actually puts her in a better frame of mind. Another friend talks to herself like she would her child. How would you treat you child if they came from school and told you about a schoolyard bully? Treat yourself with the same understanding and love.
Next, practice civility Don’t repay bad behavior with bad behavior. There’s this study that says an extreme amount of niceness can eventually overwhelm the meanness. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but I do know that the response of yelling back or getting super defensive or attacking doesn’t work. And it can escalate the situation like one of my kids temper tantrums. It starts off as this small little thing with a three year old not getting his way, but if I respond wrong, then it can catapult into a nightmarish meltdown where I’m holding a three year old facing out in my lap until the hysteria dies down. The same thing happens with adults. It escalates. Don’t react in a way that your character is questioned.
That’s why the last and best tip is to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. After you have responded to the mean behavior, extricate yourself. And if it’s a relationship you have control over, like a boyfriend or a friend, it may be time to end it. If it’s a relationship that is going to be around, a surly teenager or insecure co-worker, then develop a plan to address the meanness longer term. Those mean words sit on your spirit and crush your confidence. Don’t allow it to continue unaddressed.