Ditching the friend isn't the answer to this question.
February 27, 2012 6:44 PM   Subscribe

There is no way to ask this question that doesn't make the person whose behavior I'm trying to figure out sound like a horrifying human being, which is problematic because that's not really what I think. I'm going to try to keep this simple, but bear with me, because I bet it will get complicated really fast, mostly because I'm going to be compelled to use examples.

For simplicity's sake the friend is Shirley. I'm Penelope. Our shared hobby/biz is going to be wood carving.

So, my friend Shirley and I run the wood-carving shop that is part of a venture between myself, her, and another person that has been going on for six years. We've been friends for about twice that amount of time. Tonight, we were holding a meeting, and while someone else was running part of the meeting, Shirley and I went into the shop to figure out whether some of our equipment was malfunctioning. There is another person in the group at this time who is also into this particular facet of our hobby/business, and I *asked her into the room* to chat and be friendly. We are both of us working on these tricky machines, and the other person offers to look at it with her.

Now, this is where things get fun. She can't stand anyone trying to help her (mostly except me), and the way she reacted to this third person's interest in helping was bordering on rude. This has been a running problem with her for years. In general, I am pretty inured to her and (yes, this sounds and probably is horrifying) I'm good at "managing" her behavior and working around the things that trigger her less-appealing behavior. I don't walk on eggshells - I want to be clear, she and I have had it out in the past and there are things I won't put up with. However. The second she feels that a 3rd party is "treating her like she's stupid" by offering to help with something, like collaborating on this mechanical problem, her defensiveness is always perceived as, well, being a bitch.

This is problematic. It drives people away from helping us on the regular and in some ways gives her and by extension US a very bad rap. Tonight, after the 3rd party left the room, I tried to bring up with her that I don't think this person was trying to act like she was stupid or usurp her place or be mean or condescending in any way. Her defense is, "I know but I hate it when people x." Well, okay, but it makes you look like a really, really despicable person. Every attempt at talking about her reactions being a little off-target results in a near-meltdown. I know that Shirley's parents spent a lot of time telling her she was over-reacting and treating her as if her feelings weren't valid. I don't want to feed into that, but in all honesty, the people who want to help us are really just trying to help, and Shirley's reaction actually IS totally off base in this situation.

Shirley is a really good friend. She would take a bullet for me, no question. But the people we interact with don't know that because she's so busy "protecting" her position. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get her to relax and not view every person who wants to help us as some kind of threat. At the core of it, I'm sure it's to do with feeling as if people don't treat her with respect, but the problem is, you have to earn respect, and her behavior does not engender that right now. It's self-defeating, and I not only want her to feel respected and STOP making people feel like she's a bitch, but I also want to stop having to manage the fall out (unavoidable due to our shared hobby).

She and I each have therapists. At this point, I'd go to therapy with her to talk about this, and I am not joking. I need her in this hobby/biz venture - she is indispensable - but she's also becoming a liability. There is no way to sever the one relationship without severing the other. Have you ever dealt with someone whose behavior mis-matched his or her actual personality to this degree? Is there any way I can approach this that might be productive? I'm all ears at this point.

throwaway email: interpersonalblah@hushmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need to be more direct. "I don't think this person was trying to act like you were stupid" is too roundabout. You need to tell her straight out "That person was trying to help you, and you snapped at them. It was rude and it probably hurt their feelings. I know you don't like it when people try to help you, but we can't do things like that in the workplace, it is going to hurt our business."

If she's really a good friend, she'll be willing to have this conversation with you without losing it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:01 PM on February 27, 2012 [20 favorites]

It sounds like she has an "I must be right" complex. Telling her she's wrong (or implying it, directly, indirectly, or accidentally) will only reinforce it and trigger her reaction.

My most successful response to this kind of problem has been to get the person to calmly discuss what's right about their behavior in the area in general. This is targeted to the general area -- so it could be "tell me what's right about how you manage/run a business/work with people" as appropriate. A lot of the time this helps people get a handle on their behavior so they are in control of it and not just reacting to stimuli.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:03 PM on February 27, 2012

She doesn't sound like a horrifying human being at all. I wonder how much of your/other peoples' reactions is gendered. Anyway.

I suggest that you simply tell her something like "look, I know you hate it when people X, so we need to figure out a way that we can do Y without you needing to put up with it, because you don't react well."
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:04 PM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure why you're using words like "horrifying" or "despicable" to describe this person. She sounds frustrating to be around, but that's true of a lot of people. I have friends who are compulsive liars--I am entertained by their stories but don't believe them. I know gossips--I don't tell them my secrets. Shirley behaves in an annoying way that is understandable considering her past, at least the way you've described her.

I think you need to focus on how this effects your work together. Be gentle, but be consistent. "X is trying to help us, so I need you to listen." "This seems like kind of a disproportionate reaction to me--have you brought this up in therapy?" Are you capable of being honest with her like this?

The other option is to warn others that she is going to overreact and that it has nothing to do with them...but that's not going to make either of you look very professional.
posted by chaiminda at 7:05 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Lots of businesses and partnerships have one person who is prickly and/or actively antisocial. You can manage that by interfacing with the outside world when possible).
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:06 PM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I feel like I'm missing something here. How is reacting to people in a way that is "bordering on rude" anything close to something that makes her a horrifying, despicable human being?

Some people are more prickly than others. That doesn't make them horrifying. It also doesn't necessarily make them somebody that others want to deal with. But if she's indispensable on this project, I would consider just restructuring things so that she doesn't *have* to interface with other people very much. If she's not good at it and she doesn't enjoy it, it shouldn't be part of her role anyway. Don't make her the person somebody coordinates with to help. Have both her and that helper go through a third party, who can specifically give Shirley stuff to do that is, essentially, only hers. And have that person be somebody who will get that sometimes Shirley gets defensive and don't take it personally.

Like, here, "Hey, Shirley, that's not important enough for you to spend too much more time on, so why don't you come help me with this other thing, and we'll have this person have a look while we're busy with that." Yes, it's ego-padding to a degree, but usually people who act like this do it out of insecurity, in my experience. They don't feel competent and important. If you can provide some extra cushioning for her interactions in this group, she'll stand a better chance of gaining that confidence, and everybody will be happier.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:06 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

She sounds normal prickly (or maybe a little bit jealous of you around others?) and you sound a little hyper-aware/sensitive/empathetic. I think you should let her do what she does and only confront her if it she's doing whatever she does to you. Let other people take care of themselves unless they specifically ask you to intervene or you are losing money over her behavior. She's not your kid who needs disciplining, she's your friend and partner, adult-style.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:21 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

She sounds like a normally sensitive person to me, but I can see why you consider this a delicate situation. She may be of the mind that help equals a negative judgement on her worth as a human being, rather than a compliment or opportunity for growth. I agree that you need to be direct with her. What about saying, "I've noticed you have a hard time when someone offers to help you out with something. The gesture seems to frustrate you a lot, and it puts you on the defensive. I know you feel that when someone offers to help you, you feel they're being rude, but I wonder if you could take some people up on their offers, as your refusal is putting people at odds with us and they genuinely are eager to work WITH you, not against you. Your happiness, and theirs, is important to me. What sort of compromise could we consider?"

That's obviously a little stilted, so YMMV, but it's a little more gentle if you're not ready to go full-on "you are acting like a brat, get over your fear of help".
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:29 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Now that I've posted, treehorn+bunny's got it.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:29 PM on February 27, 2012

"Shirley, you need to find more polite ways of refusing help, because you are alienating people who want to be kind. You are also annoying me by being rude to my guests. I enjoy working with you, but I wish you could be more aware of when you're being inappropriate."

I mean, if you really need to say anything. I would also let it go and instead intervene in the moments when she is actually bring rude by just saying, "Shirley, it sounds like you're frustrated, but what you just said was rude to Jeanne."
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:30 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you are up to a quiet conversation-- not right after the incident and not in the woodworking area, you might try again with:

"Shirley, I know you hate, hate, hate accepting help, but this Woodworking venture really needs everyone's cooperation. Please know that I do have your back and I know everyone values your contributions. However, for the sake of our larger organization, I need you to either accept assistance or be much more diplomatic when you tell someone no.
I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea about you, but these strong reactions you have is the only response they get from you right now."
posted by calgirl at 7:31 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

"I know but I hate it when people x"

"In that moment, it doesn't really matter that you hate it when people do x. Hear me out...sometimes it's more important to let customers feel like the hero. It's a gift you can give them. Being kind is more important when dealing with customers than being right. It's just good business. And it's mad people skills -- having the ability to let someone think they're a hero. It would take you to a whole new level of personal power."
posted by vitabellosi at 7:52 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

I would definitely frame this as a business issue. Maybe explain by analogy that if you guys were working retail you'd have to put up with a lot of stuff you don't like from customers, and this is a similar situation.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:28 PM on February 27, 2012

"I hate it when people do x"

Please tell us what x was! I'd like to hear her side. You explain broadly that she's insulted but you don't quite confirm it with any of her own words. Without speculating on "attitude" or psychology, you might be able to understand some of this in more practical terms. What is happening empirically? Maybe she is not (only) insulted, but thrown off by another person's physical involvement in a mechanical task. When another person's hands are involved, parts can literally move around on you, and some people are totally derailed by this. Tunnel-vision focusers can even be rattled by outside suggestions: as good as the suggestion may be, it's outside the focuser's mental plan, or out of sequence in the plan. And while a tunnel-vision focuser may be able to tolerate interruptions, well, some outside helpers are more indiscreet than others. They can, for instance, neglect to passively size up the situation before jumping in and putting a hand on the steering wheel. Or they may start spouting suggestions before they realize they're obvious. But these are all examples- I don't know what transpired exactly.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 10:06 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look into CBT and into applying it in your conversations with Shirley. Basically, you need to reframe any kind of trigger word or phrase that she uses to demonstrate how it doesn't fit in the situation and to also depersonalize it so that it's about something more than Shirley.

"treating her like she's stupid"

No, x is trying to collaborate with us - this is a good thing for our wood carving business.

"I know but I hate it when people x."

I know, but if we can get them to collaborate with us on this, it will mean y for our wood carving business.

she is indispensable

Have you told her that? Tell her that often - applaud her genuinely and specifically - "you are really indepensable, you know, I don't know what we'd do without you"; "your skills in z really worked well in this situation" - that kind of stuff. She's seeking validation, so provide it verbally and specifically when appropriate and that might start to relax her more.
posted by mleigh at 10:50 PM on February 27, 2012

and the way she reacted to this third person's interest in helping was bordering on rude

Specifically how did she react? You do not tell us what words or actions she displayed that you consider rude. You don't even say that the third party was offended, this seems rather to be *your* take on the situation.

I find it odd in such a long post that you did not quote even one thing she said, or be specific about even one thing she did. It makes me wonder whether respondents to this thread would all agree with you that what she did was in fact rude.
posted by parrot_person at 1:24 AM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yes, I want to know what she actually did.

Whatever it was, it doesn't sound horrifying. I thought you were going to say she gouged the customer's eyes out with a chisel or something. If you're definitely sure she's rude to customers, you can say "Shirley, you can't interact with customers any more because you've been rude to them once too often. I will deal with the customers." The end.
posted by tel3path at 4:15 AM on February 28, 2012

There is no way to effectively answer this question without less vague details.

What does your third partner think of all this?

Why did you invite a third party into the area knowing that Shirley would probably react poorly?

How have you addressed this issue you have with her behavior before?
posted by sm1tten at 7:46 AM on February 28, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Just wanted to respond to people. In the main, people have been helpful. As with lots of anonymous questions, I struggled with how to structure things without giving away too much. No one wants to recognize themselves in a question like this, and despite all of the mother-effing drama in this thing, I love this girl and I just sincerely need strategies for dealing with this problem.

For what it's worth, this is an ongoing thing. I can cite incidents going back a few years where she's just SNAPPED at people who were otherwise being pretty reasonable -- and besides, it's part of the job description, even if it's hard, to be above things as much as possible, and to respond with grace and kindness even if people are being kind of annoying. It's possible that I could have subbed in "running a con" for "woodworking" - there are a lot of personalities involved here, and it's incumbent upon us to BE NICE while being firm and following the rules.

The specific response, for those who are interested was to say, in a very, very short, snappish tone of voice, "Yeah, I see that, and I really hate it when people correct me." The tone implied "Go the fuck away." I've known this girl a long, long time, so I feel okay intuiting that from her tone. Additionally, later she said, "well this person can't just come in here and act like she knows everything. This is OUR space." Which . .yes. But we can be gracious and kind to people. We are in, some ways, also teachers. It's complicated. To be clear, if she had said what she said to me, in that tone of voice, I would have immediately called her out on it, because that's a boundary I've set *for myself.* I am very, very not-okay with people being spoken to in that tone of voice. If offering help is triggery for her, being spoken to in that tone of voice? That's mine. I can't stand for that kind of disrespect. That being said, in the moment there was this 3rd party in the room, and a roomful of other people besides, and calling her out right then in front of God and everyone would not have produced any results at all, other than causing a scene.

I struggle mightily with how to manage this behavior of hers in the context of our shared venture. It's been an ongoing complaint. She's had different leadership roles over the years, and we've had some response to her in the vein of, "I will not work with Shirley in x position again. I will work with Penelope or Bob, but Shirley's rudeness is unacceptable." All previous attempts to discuss this have been unproductive to say the least. However, in the last little while, therapy has come into play, and so I hope I can say something like, "Look, last night was not okay. If you'd said that to me, I would absolutely have called you out, but given the situation I didn't think it was a good time. Additionally when I tried to talk with you about it afterward, you were pretty agitated, which I think means you're aware that you were needlessly short and rude to someone who just wants to help. I know you know there are issues around territory and being rude to people like this, and I know it's something you struggle with. I don't want you to be unhappy, but I also don't want to run off everyone who is the least bit competent to help us. You know that we can't do this thing without you - I need you and so does everyone else on the team - but I also need you to work on this knee jerk response. I know you aren't that person, I know it's just your in-the-moment emotion talking, but not everyone has the advantage of that knowledge."

I expect meltdown city for a little while, but sometimes you have to rip off the bandaid.

Also, in response to the "horrifying" business being over the top - it probably is, because I'm way too close to this and very sensitive to her and us being seen in a bad light because she flips out on someone who, yes, might be annoying, but who is otherwise trying to be helpful. And I know, and will acknowledge, that I am not perfect in this arena either, but if I reacted this way to someone, I would --in my own view-- need to be called out for it, and I would need to take responsibility for behaving more appropriately.

Thank you for your perspectives.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:54 AM on February 28, 2012

Is Shirley aware that people are literally refusing, point blank, to work with her?

Does Shirley think of this as a problem to be solved, and does she regard it as her problem?

Does Shirley /ever/ accept offers of help from /anyone/? If an offer of help is a 'trigger' in the way you describe, she may literally have no script for accepting an offer of help -- and no understanding of what a positive interaction might look or feel like. If she literally /never/ accepts offers of help willingly, she may be very stuck in the assumption that accepting offers of help means opening herself up to whatever form of bullying she experienced to set that trigger.

Would roleplaying "accepting help" help her develop scripts for accepting help, and help her to start rewiring her expectations? If she regards this as her problem, it might be something to at least suggest, to roleplay with you or perhaps with her therapist.

You sound extraordinarily frustrated and yet full of love. I'm imagining someone so defensive that accepting an offer of help feels to her not just like exposing her soft underbelly, but exposing her soft underbelly /knowing/ she's going to get kicked in the gut.
posted by endless_forms at 8:41 PM on February 28, 2012

Shirley, I totally get that you dislike being corrected, and that certain things make you feel disrespected. I get that it's important that people recognize, rightfully, that you are intelligent and highly skilled at woodworking. You *are* incredibly skilled, and your skill, and you, are critical to our success.

Where it doesn't work is that you end up hurting other people's feelings when you feel that they may be disrespecting you. I want to work with you so that you can feel valued and respected, and also let other people feel that they have something to offer. I know that you don't want to hurt other people's feelings.

When an oversensitive person learns to lighten up and not hyper-monitor other people, they feel better. I know, because I can be oversensitive. What helps is when I feel safe and respected, and when somebody is actually a jerk to me, my friends/coworkers/boss don't let it pass. I have to be able to trust that people have my back; then I can let a more crap roll off my back.
posted by theora55 at 10:10 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not clear why you're taking on the burden of how Shirley's perceived by other people. If it is hurting your business and people are saying "I'll never work with Shirley and Penelope again because Shirley's such a bitch!" well, yeah, then you need to figure out a way to keep her away from the customers. But if it's just "Shirley and Penelope do good work, but I'd rather talk to Penelope because Shirley might snap at me," then... so what? It's not your job to make people like her. Wanting people to like her sounds like your issue, in the same way that not wanting help is hers. It's ok if some people are disliked by other people. That customer could have set her own boundaries by responding "geeze, just trying to be nice! You don't have to bite my head off!" It's not your job to "manage" how other people perceive Shirley.
posted by MsMolly at 12:23 PM on February 29, 2012

« Older East Side   |   How to be an accidental mentee Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.