Have you ever been talking to someone when they suddenly lash out at you, in a way that is unwarranted?
Well, I have. And I’ve stumbled upon an effective way of dealing with it which I’d like to share with you, in the hopes it will help you in a similar moment!
The first time I discovered this strategy was when I was in college and was working as an employee of the campus housing office. During one shift, I saw the janitor down the hall, emptying trash bins. Our own office’s trash bin was full, so I pushed it out of the office and into the hallway by our door, as our supervisor had told us to do so the janitor would know it was ready for pickup.
The key words in that sentence being, as our supervisor had told us to do. (A little foreshadowing there…)
Anyway, right then a fellow employee in the office asked me why I’d done this. I explained that it’s what our supervisor had said to do when the trash needed to be taken out.
Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, she became enraged hearing this.
“Is that what you would do in YOUR house? What would you do if it were YOUR house and the trash needed to be picked up? What would YOU do? WHAT WOULD YOU DO?” she yelled as she began removing the trash bag from the canister. “You would take the trash bag out YOURSELF, wouldn’t you? WOULDN’T YOU?” she continued.
Strangely, her outburst didn’t anger me, since it seemed way too extreme for the situation. I was just initially shocked by the intensity of her outrage, particularly since I’d been doing exactly what we’d been told to do with office trash. So I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed, either, since I hadn’t been caught doing anything wrong.
My surprise at her reaction led me to respond more out of natural curiosity than in an attempt to correct her or defend myself.
“Are you okay?” I asked, not necessarily in a concerned way, but more in a, “What is happening here?” kind of way.
That seemed to disarm her. She stopped yelling, paused, and looked down at the trash bag in her hand as if she hadn’t realized what she’d been doing with it until now.
“I….I don’t know. I’m sorry…” she responded quietly.
“It’s okay,” I said, although somewhat distantly. The moment was so odd and awkward that I took the opportunity to then head into another office connected to our department to do some work there. To be honest, I didn’t want to deal with her; I’ve never understood people who take out their own stress on others in the workplace. As much as I see now that maybe she needed some help, at that time in college, I wasn’t prepared to offer that — especially after being randomly yelled at in a way that not even my mother has spoken to me.
What I did learn from that experience was that asking, “Are you okay?” seemed to immediately halt the barrage and make her snap back to reality and see how she was overreacting. Interesting, I thought.
Turned out that my observation then would be useful years later, on a shopping trip to Macy’s with my mother.
My mom needed to buy an outfit for an event but absolutely hates clothes shopping, particularly trying on clothes at the store. She prefers going to the store, choosing a few items, traveling back home with them, seeing what fits/looks good, and then going back to return the rest. Why? Because she’s always found some kind of hassle doing it all at the store, whether it be long lines for the fitting room, rude staff, or the tediousness of having to hold on to piles of clothes as well as her own belongings as she browses and tries things on.
But I knew having to make two trips every time she needed a new item of clothing was a hassle for her, too, so on this shopping trip for the special event, I convinced her to try on the items there and be done with it. I said I’d meet her there and go shopping with her; that way I could help her look for outfits, give her a second opinion on what she tried on, and also carry her jacket, purse and the items she was considering so her hands would be free to browse. She liked this idea and agreed.
The day we went shopping, all was going well until we entered the dressing room. The employee there was unpleasant from the start, for no reason. While I can’t recall the specific details of our encounter with her, I do remember that she was overly irritated and impatient the entire time, which upset me since neither I nor my mother had been rude to her nor were we demanding, difficult customers. We never are, plus we know firsthand that service jobs are hard. So what was her deal? Why do some people think they can talk to other people however they want, especially when there’s no valid reason for it?
I admit that I was also mad since I’d convinced my mom to get her shopping done in one trip, to spare her the inconvenience of making two trips for what she needed — or maybe more, if nothing looked right once she tried it on at home. So I felt a little protective of my mom, who already didn’t want to be there, and I could see why. I felt bad that she was having to deal with this tension because of my suggestion.
After a few minutes, I was so bothered I couldn’t take the woman’s attitude any longer.
“Are you okay?” I asked the fitting room employee, although this time somewhat more harshly than I had said it to trash-girl in college.
“What? Oh, yeah, I’m okay,” the employee said. Her tone seemed a little less irritated than it had, but I still couldn’t let it go this time. I was like a mama bear protecting her young, only in reverse, since I was mad on behalf of my mom.
“Really? Because you seem like you’re upset about something. Is there a problem?” I asked, somewhat challengingly.
That seemed to fully disarm her. “No, no, no problem,” she said.
I said okay and let it drop from that point and she seemed to drop the attitude from then on. In fact, she actually acted pleasant after, even making small talk when I brought out items my mom had tried and didn’t want.
“Are you okay?” has worked again, I thought to myself, somewhat impressed and amused by having my discovery confirmed. The first time it worked naturally could have been a fluke — but the second time made me think I was on to something.
I think asking people, “Are you okay?” when they’re unnecessarily heated forces them to take a step back and realize how they’re acting, if they’re somehow not aware. I think that was the case with the trash incident in college; that girl seemed to truly not notice how extreme her response was until I asked if she was okay.
Other times, if the person does realize they’re being a little short with you, now they know you too notice it — and don’t appreciate it. They know they can’t get away with continuing to act like that. That’s what I think happened in this Macy’s incident. The employee struck me as the type who viewed all customers negatively. I hate employees like that, having worked with people who think the same way and handle each person, call and email with an air of disgust and impatience. I have never been able to treat someone badly out of nowhere on the job, all because of my own stress. This woman must have felt justified, perhaps after dealing with many bad customers that day or throughout her time on the job. Her approach was to show customers who was boss from the start by being rude from the get-go, which also likely discouraged them from seeking her help in any way — a real win-win for her. Judging by her reaction that day, she also seemed to me to be the type who only respected someone who stood up to her; being a polite customer wasn’t enough, since she probably assumed her harsh ways were working to keep customers in line.
A part of me disliked the fact that I’d gotten a little harsh back, but it was warranted and I was glad that it had worked to improve the situation — and I think I owe it all to starting with, “Are you okay?” Had I responded right away by asking what her problem was, I doubt it would have gone as well. My question gave her the pause she needed to reconsider how she was acting.
Anyway, having “Are you okay?” work for me twice in this way has been a proud little revelation to me. I keep this knowledge in the back of my mind for whenever I may need it again, and I figured I should share it with others.
The next time someone is rude to you and you know you don’t deserve it (that is key), try it out. You may be surprised at how the situation turns out!
Note: Some Kernels of Truth cannot be held responsible if the conversation takes a turn for the worse after you ask, “Are you okay?” during a heated moment. Dealing with any subsequent slaps upside the head are the sole responsibility of you, the reader, although Some Kernels of Truth would be sympathetic to you and send you some encouraging words afterwards. 🙂