When a colleague is already stressed, even a simple mistake can escalate into an argument. Credit: Photodisc
Common superstition holds that bad (and good) things come in threes. So when, in one evening, two back-to-back clients sought advice about how to respond to unforeseen personal attacks after I also had been verbally accosted earlier that day, I knew I had to address the issue in my column.
One client had been the target of a rant from a normally agreeable co-worker; the other by an old friend. My antagonist had been a usually friendly neighbor who hurled insults and accusations at me when, while my attention was diverted, my dog chose to mark my neighbor’s sidewalk garden.
Though you might laugh, the intensity of his rage unsettled me. I was able to shake it off, knowing that his accusations of disrespect were unfounded — in fact, I had helped save this very same plot two years ago when his landlord threatened to destroy it. Perhaps my dog and I had behaved objectionably, but did it really warrant such vitriol?
As a general rule, when people overreact to a relatively minor offense there’s a good chance it’s not actually about you. More often than not, their overreaction is a sign that you have stumbled into an old, unhealed wound, making you the perfect patsy. In this situation, maintaining good personal boundaries — “It’s not me, it’s them” — can make the difference between fighting back, which will only make things worse, or shrugging it off.
Even when there’s an element of truth or culpability buried in the complaint, it’s important to remember that you deserve to be treated with respect. And who knows, maybe your dignified response will help them see the error of their ways — as it did with my neighbor, who apologized the next day.
Easier said than done
When someone's upset you — especially if it's someone you care about — it can be tough not to let it get under your skin. Take some deep breaths, then try one of these tactics:
• Recognize the anger: “I see that you’re angry. What would help you feel better?” • Take the high road: “I can’t receive any constructive feedback when you’re personally attacking me.” • Insist on a halt: “That’s enough! We’ll talk when you’ve calmed down.” • Detoxify with an apology: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. What upset you about my actions?” • Point out the futility: “We’re getting agitated and going nowhere. Let’s back up and start this discussion again.” • Diffuse the anger with validation: “What you are saying makes sense. I agree that etc.”
Kim Schneiderman’s book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,” is being published in the spring. Email your questions to email@example.com and check out her website, Novel Perspective.