How I learned to tough it out

A recent post I wrote on yelling at your kids got me thinking about a time someone yelled at me. And what it did. It toughened me up.

Like most lessons, I learned this one the hard way, with an angry exchange. It erupted over something so trifling that it caught me completely off guard. A college honors advisor lit into me for the seemingly innocuous request to substitute one history class for another, hardly an uncommon situation. In fact, I think that was what precipitated his reaction – it was late in the day, and I could very well have been the 20th person to ask for an exception. His blistering verbal response was enough to send me from the room gasping for air. But I was also angry. I knew his reaction was unreasonable. I vowed then and there never to let a situation like that affect me again.

I believe that episode was the first step in my growing one of the toughest skins ever to grace corporate America, which served me well when I started my career in the auto industry in the 80’s when women were still a somewhat unwelcome novelty in the field.

Not too many years later, the owner of one of my car-dealership clients did the same thing. He was furious over something the company had done and he let me have it. But this time I kept my cool. And because I did it really took the steam out his attack. In fact, he apologized and took me to lunch.

Unless you have just done something utterly stupid or thoughtless, the reaction of another is rarely about you. It’s much more likely that it arises from some other factor and you just happen to be standing in the path of the tornado. So what did I learn from these two episodes?

  • Don’t react. I guarantee that if your adversary is  the only one in the room yelling, eventually they will start to feel sort of foolish. And then they will stop.
  • Tamper your own emotions, if you can, and really listen to what the other person is saying. Somewhere in there is a problem statement – and a solution.
  • Consider accepting fault, even if it isn’t warranted. This might be counter to the usual advice you receive, but it can neutralize anger. I have stopped a few people dead in mid-rant with this powerful phrase: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to antagonize you.”

I don’t know whether it is entirely good that my early career taught me to respond passively to unreasonable attacks of all sorts, but I’m pretty sure it’s protected my psyche and my dignity over the years.  When someone’s unreasonable, you can’t necessarily say it, but it helps to think it: “It’s not me – it’s you.”

Have a hard interpersonal lesson learned to share? What wisdom did it bring you?