Fool Suffering Filter!
March 24, 2007 10:40 AM   Subscribe

It's a fact of life: some of us are brilliant & utterly delightful to deal with, and then there are... other people.

I have a friend who works for a luxury tour company in Africa. He has to tour spoiled wealthy people around a lot (mostly British, American & French), and he's been going through some health problems (chest pains, etc.) because the stupidity and attitudes of the people he works with (both in the company and as tour clients) have gotten him so stressed out. He just doesn't suffer fools well, and I can relate to that. But, he talks about quitting his job and I know he can't afford to do this. Since he'll be meeting fools for the rest of his life no matter where he goes, I've been trying to give him advice on how to handle situations calmly instead. That whole "You can't control other people, you can only control how you react to them" thing.

The other day he asked me this question: "What do you do if you are driving someone around and they tell you to go to the left but you know that if you do so you will drive over a cliff? Keep in mind that you are in the service industry so your job is to make these people happy... but the fact is that these people are idiots who do not know what they are talking about, and they are insisting that you do what they say... but if you go over this cliff you will die. Do you fight with them? Or do you go over the cliff and die? What are you supposed to do?"

I thought I gave him some pretty good advice about making them feel heard but still remaining in control and with a smile on his face, but then a day later I found myself in a similar situation with a young green musician I'm going to be doing some music work with, and I started to feel chest pains myself. He's a nice enough guy, but if I say no to his bad ideas I will come across as a controlling diva & probably create some resentment. If I say yes, I'll be a doormat who is agreeing to be the focal point of an onstage train wreck that I would hate every minute of. I would prefer to allow neither scenario and to just do whatever I want while keeping everyone happy. But... how?

Sooo, here's today's question: how do YOU deal with people who come across as stupid/ignorant/etc.? What do you do when someone is telling you to do something and in your heart you want to reply by telling them the top ten reasons that they are an idiot? Is there a way to handle these situations gracefully & powerfully where people end up liking you and everyone is contented... without feeling chest pains, without insulting anyone, without being a diva or a doormat, without quitting a job, but still remaining in control & happy & not dead at the bottom of a cliff?

Do tell.

And yes, I'm still avoiding doing my taxes.
posted by miss lynnster to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the best way is for them to figure it out for themselves by giving them as much information in a filtered, dumbed-down manner that they can properly process.

Take them to the edge of the cliff, as it were, and ask them if they still want to proceed.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:03 AM on March 24, 2007

"Go left! I said go left! Aren't you LISTENING? Turn left NOW!"

Big smile, eye contact. "What an interesting idea! Why do you want us to drive over a cliff?"
posted by Meatbomb at 11:05 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Well, here's the thing... let's say we're talking about people who are too stupid to know it's a cliff until after the group funeral.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:07 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: And just in case there are stupid people reading this... the "cliff" is a metaphor. It's not a real cliff.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:11 AM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: I am a tour guide, though my passengers have been astonishingly well behaved as a rule. Also, they have no say in our route. But in a situation like those described, if for some reason I wasn't comfortable just stating the obvious ("can't turn left, huge cliff out that way" or "I did what you're suggesting on stage once thinking it would be great and it didn't go well, let me tell you why..."), I think I would make a joke out of it, and begin describing, in an exaggerated form, all the dire things that would follow should I follow the fool's instructions.

Look at it this way: your friend the tour guide holds the power of life or death over these twits (it's Africa, for god's sake!), and he can create any persona he likes while they are in his care. If they don't like his attitude, they can bitch and moan, but he'll never see any of them again. So if he can create a character, he can distance himself from the personal annoyance of dealing with obnoxious clients and just act in character. What would the Great White Tour Guide do? He might want to channel Bogart in "African Queen" or The Good Witch from Oz or Connery as Bond.

It's not personal between the difficult passengers and your friend, and the sooner he finds a way to signal that to his upset brain and body, the better.
posted by Scram at 11:12 AM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Smile, agree, compliment them on their perspicacity, and then do what you know to be best. If they say "But I wanted to turn left," smile some more, say "Don't worry, we're going to do that, but first I had to deal with [blah blah blah]," and confuse them with rhetoric until they give up and go away. Bureaucrats have perfected this technique for millennia; it's why allegedly all-powerful rulers can never seem to achieve their dreams.
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: A particular situation that upset him recently was when he was on a long drive with a family. He offered them sandwiches. They scrunched up their faces and said that they didn't want the food because the driver had touched it with his hands. He told them that they were far from any towns and there were no other options for food at the time so they should go ahead and try to eat it. They wouldn't, so he set it aside and they went without food. Later he felt upset that he basically told them to shut up and eat, but he was also upset that they were such idiots and he was afraid they were going to complain about him to his supervisors.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:20 AM on March 24, 2007

That example about the sandwiches just makes him sound arrogant, I think. He offered, they refused. There's nothing there to suggest "smart" vs. "stupid". There are a lot of very smart people who have "germ issues", or whatever.

This leads me to my more general comment: You and your friend seem to be automatically assuming that you're the smart ones, and therefore correct, and that the others are the dumb ones, and therefore wrong. Part of getting along well with people is realizing that sometimes you're the idiot. (Of course I mean "you" in the general, not the specific sense).
posted by crapples at 11:25 AM on March 24, 2007

In terms of your friend, a couple of points leaped out at me --

"...have gotten him so stressed out."


"...he talks about quitting his job and I know he can't afford to do this."

First of all, he's probably in the wrong business. "Not suffering fools gladly" is fundamentally inconsistent with most service oriented, client facing roles where the customer is always right.

Second problem is he has to work. So he's got a problem no matter what, and it seems it comes down to lack of money as if he had enough cash he could just walk. That alone probably causes your friend some degree of frustration as he feels trapped. I have to deal with some total jerks sometimes (banking clients can be unbelievable), but I'm fortunate enough to not have to work unless I want to; walking is always in the back of my mind as an option when things get tense, and its an option I've actually exercised at least once in my career. So I let them get on with their tantrums knowing full well I've got an out.

I deal with difficult people by over communicating; letting them know as clearly as possible my position. Many times people are "difficult" simply because they aren't in full possession of all the facts, not because they are total asses.

It also pays to be affable at all times and not get pulled into arguments. Keep in mind that while you may be able to force someone to do something, convincing them to do it of what they believe to be their own free will is much less stressful for all involved.
posted by Mutant at 11:26 AM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: Everyone's an idiot in some ways. I would want people to be decent to me when I was being an idiot [if I wasn't also being an asshole] and so I try to do the same. If people are being assholes, demanding you do what they say, etc. that is a separate problem. So, my list. Since I am a librarian, I deal with this a lot.

Step 1, my mantra "I am the smiling buddha and since my job is to help you with these problems, maintaining the right attitude on my part helps this" You need to have some degree of confidence that YOU are the expert in whatever you are having the conflict over and so it's your job to bring the whole thing to a smooth conclusion. Having your ego wrapped up in someone else telling you you're an idiot (are you being in idiot by not driving of the cliff? then why do you care if someone says you are?) causes problems and betrays a lack of confidence.

Step 2, lose the attitude. There is nothing to be gained by having a status war with people [i.e. YOU are an idiot and I am NOT an idiot] and it just makes you feel more righteous about your position which rarely helps solve the problem. It's totally okay to vent with your friends and let off steam, etc, but try to set it aside when you are dealing with people. If you need to tell yourself "we're all god's children" or "what if this was MY mom" or "I'm not going to heaven if I think bad thoughts" or "karma" or "I'm going to lose my job if I lose my cool" that's fine. People can tell when you think they're idiots and they dont like it.

Step 3, be a control freak about giving up control. If I lose my cool with a library patron or someone here on MetaFilter or at my house, I feel like I've let myself down. Part and parcel of this is not playing the "my hands are tied!" game. Be aboveboard about the structures that influence your life and what you can do to change them and what your priorities are. If your friend stays at a job that makes him crazy without seriously considering and trying other options, that is a choice he's making, not an unavoidable side effect of being alive. See the Jack and Jill thread for more back and forth on this idea.

Step 4, get out from between conflicting loyalties. Your friend's problem seems to be that his job requires one thing (subservience to jerks) and his idea of "doing a good job" requires another. The long term solution to this is to not take jobs that require this, but we're not all that lucky. The short term solution is to make sure you bring conflicts to the attention of both sides of the equation you're being squeezed between but sometimes this means waiting until you can do this and sucking it up in the meantime. So "I have to obey the customers, but what if they tell me to drive off a cliff?" and "I'm supposed to do everything you want, but if I do what you say, we will die, so I am not doing that" and making the process part of everryone's understanind as in "I know these are the rules but there is a reasoned reason why I am not doing it exactly by the book"

Step 5, a good shag, swim, smoke. There are other ways to manage stress levels that have nothing to do with other people. I personally find that swimming until I am exhausted makes me much more charitable towards everyone in my life.
posted by jessamyn at 11:26 AM on March 24, 2007 [8 favorites]

I find a reasonable way through this is to discuss expectations in advance. "I'm amenable to a somewhat free-form itinerary, but if there are obstacles and/or safety issues, then I reserve the right to set the course..."

miss lynnster, what do you mean by your 11:11am comment? Are you talking about the italicized quote at the top? If the cliff is a metaphor for "there's nothing interesting to see that way," then it just sounds whiny.
posted by chookibing at 11:27 AM on March 24, 2007

similar, might be helpful.
posted by gursky at 11:33 AM on March 24, 2007

"What do you do if you are driving someone around and they tell you to go to the left but you know that if you do so you will drive over a cliff?

That's easy. You say "There's some marvelous scenery over there, isn't there? I'm sorry, but my insurance covers only a limited area of operations, so I can't go over there. I'm sure you understand how firm insurance companies can be."

This could even be almost true if his insurance wouldn't cover acts of obvious dipshittedness.

The food one is just an obvious lesson: Next time, have the food packed out of sight of the customers, and let them grab their own sandwiches out of whatever container they're in. Or invest in a little bit of cling-wrap, for Pete's sake.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Well, in the case for me, it's that I've been a professional musician for a long time and the person I'm working with is young and inexperienced. He's the bandleader, but I'm realizing he hasn't worked with many singers so he doesn't really know what he's talking about (picking the wrong keys, etc.). From my experience I know that some of his ideas will make our performances genuinely bad. If that happens, I am the one making an ass of myself. He'll be safely hidden behind a piano. I think he has some good ideas and I do let him know that. It's the universally bad ideas, the ones that I tell my other professional musician friends and they say, "No, he did not ask you to do that, did he? Oh my LORD." that I'm struggling with.

As for my friend's situation, keep in mind when you read it that there is also a cultural thing involved. He's a native of Egypt and is dealing with a lot of wealthy people who have a very colonial attitude about the people touring them around but know little of the culture (if you've seen the movie Babel, it's like that kind of thing). Keep that in mind when you read the story... it's a different situation than it would be if it happened here in America where that situation would mean nothing to anyone. There's a lot of cultural ignorance involved on top of the usual stupidity.

But all of that aside, yeah... we are automatically assuming we are the smart ones. But I think in this case that's because in these two situations we are the ones who are definitely the resident experts on something in particular.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Wow I'm sounding arrogant. I don't mean to. I've actually gotten along fine with this young pianist so far, I'm just trying to figure out how to do better & to be a better person.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:45 AM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: "I would really like to do what you're suggesting, because it does sound like a great idea, but unfortunately, here's why we can't."

Agree with the underlying premise. State the problems in such a way as to acknowledge the client had, of course, no way of knowing about the obstacles; it's his job as a tour guide to have information that the clients don't. That doesn't make him smarter, that's simply his role on the tour. So he of course could not expect them to know these things in advance, and he's super apologetic for not realizing he should have told them in advance, but, unfortunately, they are all going to have to forgo the wonderful things that are surely available if they turn left, due to health/safety/time issues.

He should be able to avoid these sorts of things in the future by setting up expectations better. There's no reason that the clients should be surprised to find out that handmade sandwiches are their only lunch option. There's no reason that the clients should be surprised to find out that there are safety or time issues if they deviate from the route. He's not being a good guide if these issues come up as surprises, and he's certainly not in control of the situation, which is exactly what a tour guide is supposed to be. (I'm speaking from experience; I was a tourguide in Italy, and have a close friend (who trained me in Italy) who's working as a guide in Southeast Asia.)

"Good morning, folks. Today we are going to be driving to X location. The roads around here are really bad -- especially after the rains we had -- so please be aware that we cannot deviate from our route. There will, however, be plenty of free time for you to explore on your own once we get to Y location (and really, the trails there are better for taking photos anyway). Please be aware that, due to the offroad adventures we're doing today, your only option for lunch will be the packed sandwiches we are bringing with us. If you have any questions, let me know, but again, remember that any restrictions I'm throwing at you are to keep you safe and make sure you have a happy vacation."

Especially if he's getting the same objections over and over, then he needs to anticipate those objections or requests and give people information in advance about why he won't be able to accommodate them. Not doing so doesn't make him smart, it makes him a bad leader. Not knowing in advance about a country that they've never been to does not make his clients dumb, it makes them smart for having hired a guide in the first place.

The major trick is just continually, subtly complimenting the clients on their good judgment in deferring to him and on the wonderful places they will see while subtly disparaging the awful places they won't see. Even if it's a white lie. Get people excited about the trip they're supposed to be taking, not about the places they're missing due to his insistence on following the set itinerary. They should be totally wowed by how he's so knowledgeable that he's taking them to the exact sort of place they want to see, rather than to the run-of-the-mill place they thought they wanted to see.
posted by occhiblu at 11:49 AM on March 24, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When I was first divorced, with two kids under three and not much else, I got a job working in the child-care room at a chi-chi status gym. The mothers used to drive me nuts. They had lots of money and nothing but time, but they used to whine about their kids, their rich husbands, everything in their lives, really, like we who worked the child-care room at the gym were bartenders. I on the other hand had no car, no money, and a whole lot of strugglin', so it was hard for me to sympathize. One day this woman was venting about the dealership misaligning the door handle on her Mercedes, I'm going, really, yeah, that's awful blah blah, and it hit me -- this woman's life is just as hard as mine. Exactly as hard.

Everybody has to have the same amount of tension in his life, so if you don't have any real problems, you'll make them. I get to think that I'll be happy when I've saved up enough for a bus pass, but this woman will never be happy -- she's already got everything that might reasonably have been expected to make her happy. I'd rather be me, I thought. I'd rather not have enough to eat, and be bummed about that, than be bummed about the door handle on my car. And so bummed about it that I need validation from people who are paid to serve me?

If your friend could just reflect on how sad it would be to have the money, health, and time to take a pleasure trip through Africa with a private tour guide at your service, and still be hating your life over every trivial thing, he would have nothing but compassion for these people, I'm sure.
posted by Methylviolet at 11:55 AM on March 24, 2007 [20 favorites]

How do you know the things you know? From experience, right? Consider that the fools are simply lacking that experience. In the case of the musician, if it's possible to do it his way so that he can experience its wrongness, he gets to learn. Especially if afterwards you suggest trying it another way (in a different key, or whatever) and he can actually perceive the difference.

I have a demanding boss who will sometimes ask me to do stuff that I know won't work. Though I can say, "My experience shows me that this won't work," he is an experiential learner too, and he wants to see for himself. Part of that is so that he can more wisely figure out the solution, having experienced the failure and noted precisely when it went awry. So I'll do it his way, we'll examine the flaws, I'll suggest any solutions I have, and he'll suggest solutions too, and we'll get to solving it eventually.

Going through that failing for him can sting because I don't like to get things wrong, especially when it's avoidable. But my position is to assist my boss in the way he prefers. And if he wants to watch me fail so that he can learn vicariously, my pride can take it, as long as I keep that in mind.
posted by xo at 12:05 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: 1. Get a life and get over yourself. That sounds harsh, but I was so the person you described 4 or 5 years ago. Very arrogant, very "this is the way to do it and it's the right way so if you don't do it my way, you're wrong. And stupid!" I'd get mad, depressed, stomach problems, stress, chest pains, the whole nine yards.

Then I got diagnosed with diabetes and had to radically rethink what was important in order to get and stay healthy. Arguing with a client about colors (i do graphic design) started to seem silly and fuming about it even after the job was done and I was paid was even sillier.

All you can do is offer what you've learned and know to others. Either they'll accept or they won't. But you've at least offered it.

EVERYTHING passes. Everything. Getting bent outta shape about this stuff means you have too much time to think about it, which means you don't have enough other stuff going on in your life.

2. You also have to see outside yourself and that other people will want things you don't and that's ok. Sometimes people are just foolish for their own reasons and that has nothing to do with you. Realize that we're all here, going through life, wanting things and we sometimes brush up or even collide against each other. That's ok. Because...

3. You have understand and figure what you'll accept and not accept and be willing to hold to that without. A good, friendly, non confrontational attidude helps a lot too and came about for me, once I did #1 and realized #2. If you don't wanna do something, say so and why. It doesn't even have to strictly reasonable or explained, but you do have to willing to comprise in some fashion. ex: "I'm no t comfortable doing x, but I can do y, how about that?"

4. I read waiter rant a lot, which helps to put things in perspective.

5. Seconding all of what Jessamny said, espcially the bit about everyone being an idiot at some point.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:05 PM on March 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is why god invented "topping from below", a term that originated amongst kinky people but which can certainly apply to non-sexual situations.

When you're providing service, you're the bottom. You're supposed to follow orders. However, bottoms the world over know that things can go so much better if you, well, guide your top. But tops like to feel as though they are in control, so you can't let them know they're being guided. You take control, but you let the other person think they're running the show.

Let's take the left turn/over-a-cliff example. If you're the driver and you want to take control of the situation, you would say "No, I'm not turning that way. I don't want to die." Of course, that's going to piss off the customer/client. That's because you've asserted yourself, challenged their authority. You've taken control out of their hands.

But if you were taking the topping-from-below approach, you'd say something like, "I don't think you'll be very happy with that route. It goes over a cliff. Could I take you the other route instead?" In this version, you never step out of your flunkie/bottom role. You never assert yourself or claim to have superior knowledge. You're just providing a service, trying to be helpful. And, most importantly, the top/customer gets to make the decision, so they still feel like they're in charge.

I've seen this technique used in a BDSM setting, but I got the most mileage out of it while working customer service. I promise you, it can work. Humans are often unpredictable, so industry has spent quite a bit of time, money, and effort to make them the opposite. This is accomplished largely through advertising.

I discovered this while working in a video store. The entertainment industry, of course, identifies certain blocks of consumers and then targets their advertising towards one or more of them. A Hugh Grant romantic comedy might be marketed to teenage girls and young women while a horror film is marketed to young men. No mystery there. But what I discovered at the video store was that these demographic tricks work astoundingly well. Reliably and predictably (almost without exception, actually), teenage boys and young men would come in looking for the movies that the studios had decided, perhaps several years prior, that teenage boys and young men should rent. Similarly, married women with children rented the married-women-with-children movies. And so forth.

As a movie fan, this made me want to sit down and cry. But as a video store clerk, it was a tremendous asset. There's no way you can spend fifteen minutes with each customer finding a movie that they like. And with the magic of targeted demographic advertising, there was no need to. You just pointed him or her towards the most recent four or five movies marketed to his/her demo and presto. More than nine times out of ten, you'd hook your fish and reel him in inside three minutes. And then of course there were the majority of customers, the ones who needed no help at all because, thanks to that demo-directed advertising, they already knew what they wanted before they walked in the door.

What I'm saying here is that your friend probably knows quite a bit about his customers and the products/services they consume. Therefore, he should find them to be very predictable. And people who are predictable tend to be a lot easier to control.
posted by Clay201 at 12:12 PM on March 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes, in service, acting more stupid is the key to getting everyone to the goodtime locale. They'll write off a little stupidity if the result is as desired. To do this, however, you cannot start from a position where you are taking orders. Really, there must be clear boundaries around your professional authority and duties, even in the most low-paid service work. Busboys must be allowed authority over their busbins, or it's bad management, and treatable, but incurable.

I was a full time tour guide at The Mystery Spot for a year. That meant as many as ten treks per day up a hill with an assorted lot of ~30 skeptics, children and Chinese. Lots of Chinese. This entailed storytelling and demonstrating the confusing aspects of a mystical cabin and playing it off in such a way that everyone had fun, even those people who got in my face and demanded that I deny all the silly explanations I mentioned in my schtick. Taking a "just wait and see what's coming up next" excitement-inducing attitude, a reclamation of expertise and control, was usually the best way of putting off these control freaks, who for their $5 admission, thought they had the right to derail the 45 minute tour and monopolize/intimidate me in order to satisfy their own desire for control at the expense of fun or wonder.

Of course, the fact that I did possess the understanding they sought, but would certainly walk away without, made that easier. By being evasive or non-responsive without lying (I never lied to a tour), I was usually able to get everyone through to the feelgood finale without incident.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:29 PM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

By "white lie" I meant more along the lines of exaggerating the danger of the roads, or the limitedness of the time, or the beauty of the next stop over this one, rather than outright lying. I agree, outright lying to tours is a bad bad thing.
posted by occhiblu at 12:35 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: The feeling you get when you think you're going to have a coronary? That's your gut feeling screaming 'Nooooo!' when someone suggests something stupid. The more you are committed to doing a good job of what you do, the louder this voice is and the harder and more stressful it is to go against it or ignore it. If you cant switch this voice off or turn it down, then working in the service industry is not for you unless you want a nervous breakdown. In other jobs though you may need to listen more to this.

I recently had to produce someone very inexperienced and very pushy who kept wanting me to do things which I knew were very bad news. Where I could see safe things to compromise on, I compromised, but on one point, for the very reason you mention, that I didn't want to be seen as 'controlling diva' I went against my gut feeling and experience and did what the presenter wanted rather than what I normally would have done and this is how I ended up in studio.

You are indeed right not to let this happen to you. If someone constantly pushes you against your gut feeling and experience till you reach that fight or flight 'I'm going to have a coronary' stage, dont work with them and get out of any project you are on with them as quickly as possible. Caring deeply about what you do makes you vulnerable to this.

The alternative is to go down more of a zen non-attachment route, be upbeat sunny and positive while saying "You'd like us to turn right which would lead us over a cliff? Wow that would be a really interesting radical sound, but it's not what we're looking for in this piece. I think that part where you played X was brilliant - could we do more of that instead?'. If you cant do that, or if you're doing it and the person is still constantly pushing you with bad ideas that stress you, then sadly the only answer for you is probably don't work with that person. Few people are talented enough to be worth that kind of thing.
posted by Flitcraft at 12:38 PM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of good answers. Some things are very similar to what I have told him already, but are coming from different directions and perspectives which is good. I don't really have the same issues he does in regards to taking direction from others (in my non-singing day job I have to take bad directions every day & it's easy -- I figure I'm getting paid for every minute), but his stress issues have become so big that I'm not sure what to say to him about them sometimes. Seems to me his ego is literally making him sick. On top of my helpful comments I also told him that he needs to mellow the Hell out because he's being a spaz... so I figured this post might help me to formulate some more constructively worded advice than that. :)

And regarding my 11:11 comment, I was just being a harmlessly silly smart ass. Because I'm like that sometimes. I wasn't saying it in a bitchy tone in the slightest.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, and I used to be a tourguide in LA. But to be honest, I never had anyone treat me badly or question me. Not once. So all of the advice from you tourguides who have experienced it has been helpful. Thanks.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:44 PM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: And thank you FlitCraft. That's exactly where I'm at with the pianist. Music means a lot to me... I just want it to be fun for everyone, to make good music and utilize my strengths. For now I'm going to just try to do the smiling communicative listening thing & try to help him to understand how singers work differently than instrumentalists, but I'll probably keep my track shoes ready in the closet just in case I see a cliff approaching.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:54 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: In law practice, we use the phrase "client control" to describe the skill of handling our clients, many of whom are simultaneously stupid, ignorant about the law, distressed and worried about the situation they've hired us to handle, suspicious that we are not working hard enough on their case or devoting enough time and attention to it, and under the delusion that they know something about law and legal strategy. These qualities make certain clients very difficult to deal with.

My conclusion --- and this may not completely apply in a service industry where the goal is happiness and satisfaction, rather than achieving a specific legal result --- is that you have to be firm, from the very beginning, and make it clear what your limits are, and what areas are open to discussion/negotiation and which are not.

When I have to firmly refuse to do something, I try to sugar-coat it by using the following formula. Combining all these elements into a brief explanation generally works.

Boilerplate acknowledgement of the apparent appeal of whatever the idiot client wants to do
Reference to your "long experience" that has taught you that the apparent appeal of that option is belied by the danger/inconvenience/peril/delay/inevitable thwarting of your objectives that will inevitably follow if you pursued what the idiot client wanted to do
Colorful story from your past experience, illustrating, vividly and horrifyingly, the bad consequences of pursuing one of these apparently appealing options
Humble apology for having to refuse to grant the idiot client's request/demand, which apology serves to placate the client while at the same time underscore and reiterate that you ARE, in fact, refusing to grant the idiot client's request/demand.

I would propose that your friend think very carefully about each aspect of his job, and plan ways to pre-emptively make it clear that certain things are not open to compromise. Perhaps, at the beginning of a trip (to use the "driving off a cliff scenario") your friend should make a humorous speech that, "Our route takes us from point A to Point Z. Through long, painful experience our company has learned that taking some of the particularly tempting detours causes ridiculous delays, takes us around dangerous cliffs, and exposes us to falling rocks. Therefore, as a matter of company policy we're not able to vary from our established route."

If a persistent customer insists on making trouble, it's best to continue to maintain, with a smile, that, "I am very sorry, but it is company policy not to do that. I certainly understand your interest in [whatever it is that the customer wants, but which you don't want to do], but our company has a policy against it due to some bad experiences in the past."
posted by jayder at 1:03 PM on March 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I might be careful about "company policy" if the tourists are likely to call up the company and ask about said policy. At the very least, your friend should let his employers know if he wants to use that as an excuse; it can be a good one, but it does require back-up from everyone else who might, at any point in the future, deal with the same client. (And the company might balk at it, if they want to be seen as customer-focused. After all, your friend may not see these clients again, but the company probably has a lot invested in getting them to sign up for future excursions, and may not want to take all the blame for them not getting what they wanted.)
posted by occhiblu at 1:10 PM on March 24, 2007

He's a nice enough guy, but if I say no to his bad ideas I will come across as a controlling diva & probably create some resentment. If I say yes, I'll be a doormat who is agreeing to be the focal point of an onstage train wreck that I would hate every minute of.

I think you're catastrophising here - I realise you're exaggerating a little for comic effect, but hmm. I don't think it helps build assertiveness by polarising the future between two disastrous possibilities. Casting people as 'fools' isn't a great starting point - a little bit of empathy can massively help to diffuse those 'chest pain' moments, when you realise that it isn't personal.
posted by RokkitNite at 1:19 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: Read How to Win Friends & Influence People. See the Summary, especially parts 3 and 4.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:21 PM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

"...catastrophising here..." -- my God, I finally have a word for what I've done all my life. Thank you, RokkitNite. Sincerely!
posted by mrkinla at 1:45 PM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: Hey RokkitNite, yeah I'm being funny about it. But in all seriousness, let me put it this way... without some gentle guidance/resistance, it's very likely that if I follow this pianist's direction exactly I very well might end up in a hotel lobby looking something like this. When what audiences generally like from me & what I'm working towards is something a bit more in this direction (minus the kickass scatting. Because... that's ELLA for Christ's sake).

So while there are no cliffs around, being onstage & looking like that first example is something I would jump off of a cliff to avoid. Although I do know all of the lyrics to "The Trolley Song."
posted by miss lynnster at 1:55 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: I run into the same type of situations in my line of work -- marketing -- and although there's been a ton of good advance, one of the best tricks I've ever learned has not been mentioned.

Everybody thinks they're a marketer; every marketer tends to think they're a copywriter; nobody has a problem asking for graphic design changes like typography and layout and color theory can be picked up in five minutes. Makes for some interesting creative reviews. Whenever I'm asked/told to make a change I sincerely don't believe in, I typically say, "We can do that... but I need to advise you of what that may mean for the project."

Most people don't think any further out than the next step -- so, a left turn is just a left turn and not necessarily a left turn which results in a trajectory that takes you over a cliff. It's sometimes as easy as acknowledging, "Yes, that can be done, but I doubt it's going to accomplish what you want it to accomplish -- but if you're going to demand I take that action, I assume you're prepared to accept responsibility, especially given that it's against the advice I'm being paid to give you."

The key here is that instead of turning something like this into a contest of wills -- which, in the service industry, you're unlikely to win, given that people have an established expectation that you're not going to be willful -- you politely say, basically, "Okay, we'll do it YOUR way -- I just want us to be clear that this is your way, not mine, and in overruling my advice, you're sticking your neck out on this one. So let's go." Codifying someone's decision -- instead of immediately disputing it or acting on it -- has a tendency to freeze it into some kind of slow-motion from which its own momentum rarely recovers.

This is for decisions which we can afford to make more than one choice on: making the logo bigger, changing the headline, going with a different edit, etc. Almost nothing has a single right answer -- and, guess what, they may be right, and you need to be prepared for that, too. For a true "turn left and we go over a cliff" decision, you simply say, "I'm sorry. Going left plunges us 800 feet into a deep gorge. I'm sure that's not your intention. Sandwich?"
posted by mrkinla at 2:10 PM on March 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: What do you do if you are driving someone around and they tell you to go to the left but you know that if you do so you will drive over a cliff?

I'll quote someone that said, "Your enemy is never a villain in their own mind." The stupid person doesn't know they're stupid. This gives you an opportunity to make them happy.

"Can we turn left?"
"There's actually a cliff over there, so no, we can't. What is it that's over there on the left that's interesting to you? Perhaps we can find it another way?"
"I thought I saw an elephant in the trees."
"Oh, I know a far better place to go to see elephants ... follow me!"

Problem solved, crisis averted, world saved.
posted by frogan at 6:32 PM on March 24, 2007

Best answer: We work in tourism in Morocco, and get a lot of the colonialist attitude. Particularly when it comes to safety...we'll tell people, "Don't go up in the mountains with any less than four liters of water." The response? "Oh, ha ha, not that hot today, is it? We're experienced hikers/walkers/trekkers..." or whatever. Those are the ones that invariably get lost and have to be rescued.

The only thing to do is give them all the information that you can, and if they choose to ignore that information, let it go. Make whatever decisions you need to with group safety as the top priority...everything else is cake. It's AFRICA, for God's sake, not Surrey. Eat the damn sandwich.

Also, if your friend is a good guide, his employers are going to know that. All guides have had nasty letters sent back to headquarters once or can't please everyone, and the letters often deal with something the guide couldn't control. Best one I heard was "It rained the whole time, and we were cold." ???
posted by Liosliath at 11:30 PM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Social stresses are dynamic, unique, transient.

One piece of advice does not fit all circumstances.

A cultivated, overarching attitude and/or moral framework that takes into account the major characteristics of most people and their social motivations can increase the chances of successful interactions.

TheophileEscargot's recommendation of Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends, etc. is the best piece of advice in this thread.

RTF book.

It it ANCIENT, by today's last-week's-internet-post-short-attention-span-blog-reader standards, but it has some useful advice for dealing with difficult people. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, and Difficult Conversations are good reads, too, for the same reason.

Your friend, Miss Lynnster, doesn't need a new job. He needs to develop his social skills. There will always be difficult people in abundance, wherever he goes. Buy him a $3 book from Amazon and help him start the process.
posted by FauxScot at 6:36 AM on March 26, 2007

These are just lines of thought if they come across blunt (or disjointed). He doesn't have the experience to know his ideas suck. You do. Was it gained through hindsight, advice or reasoning? What's his reasoning behind why it 'is in fact a good idea?' Is there a way to 'practice run' so he can see the result for himself?? Can you reshape it with your input so it will work?

People are just generally stupid (not me of course...) my general approach is to stall for time with either 'confusion' or 'deep consideration.' Invite them to expand on the matter while trying to figure out what the hell it is that they are thinking. My dog taught me this works a treat- then tilt my head to the side before I ask deliberate, leading questions or suggestions in the form of unsure questions. Can be too effective when blonde and glasses don't seem to compensate. Either they figure it out, we genuinely come up with something or based on the extensive reasoning I can say no way that idea sucks!
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:38 AM on March 26, 2007

Uh the dog didn't teach me the best wording in these situations. The credit for that goes to an excruciatingly difficult ex, 'bless him... (with a stick).
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:46 AM on March 26, 2007

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