The Challenge of Dealing With People Who Treat Life as One Long Self-Centered Emergency

How would the Dalai Lama tell someone to f***-off?

Posted Jul 22, 2010

One of the themes I have been writing about lately is on The Delicate Art of Being Perfectly Assertive. I have been focusing on this skill as a hallmark of great bosses, but I have been noticing lately that it is also a hallmark effective people more generally.  I love working with moderately pushy and competent people -- be it my research relationships, other colleagues, my clients, the folks who often write me emails and comment on this and other blogs where I post, or friends and acquaintances.  I don't like dealing with flakes who never answer or follow-up.  But I especially don't like dealing with people who treat everything as an emergency that needs to be done right now.  I can think of at least five different types of people who drive me especially nuts in this regard:

1. Friends and colleagues who believe that their concerns are ALWAYS so important that they can interrupt whatever I am doing.  I had one colleague who, although she was competent and caring in many ways, believed that whatever concern she had was so important that regardless of who I was meeting with, she had permission to barge into my office, drag me out into the hall (or if it was a student, she often ordered the student in the hall), and then press her (usually) non-urgent issue on me.

2. People who are very flaky about answering my questions and inquiries, but whenever they have a question or concern, they make very clear -- using terms like ASAP or those awful exclamation marks in Outlook that their concerns must be answered right now, no matter how trivial.

During the years that my wife was managing partner of a large law firm, she always described the use of those exclamation marks in emails as a personality characteristic.  She had some partners who never sent emails about anything without using those things.  Recently, I was dealing with a corporate lawyer over the release of a teaching case and -- although there were perhaps 15 people involved in the discussion from four different organizations -- only one person used those awful exclamation marks and used words like "urgent" and "ASAP," the lawyer.  I wrote him a note saying that he was doing a disservice to himself and his profession by using such repeated and claims of urgency, as it reinforced negative stereotypes of lawyers.  I also noted that he was the least responsive person in the group to requests from others.  

3. People who I have never met, but insist that their questions or concerns are so important that I must drop whatever I am doing right now to deal with their concerns.  As readers of this blog who email me or make comments know, I really do try to be responsive to everyone's emails and questions.  But I can only move so fast and must do triage.  I got a phone call from a woman -- followed by an email -- I have never met the other day demanding that I stop everything I am doing and help her with deal with her asshole boss.  I feel bad for her and I try to be responsive to such people, but her request came on a day that my dog was very sick, and I had to deal with that.  She wrote back a couple more times and I can't bring myself to answer her emails.

4. People who show no respect for the fact I have a personal life and a family, and there are many times when those concerns come first.   Frankly, I am pretty aggressive about pushing back when people do this to me.  I really do put my kids and wife first most of the time.  But I do have some colleagues who treat this a weakness and press me to change priorities.  I have become especially clear on this since having open heart surgery in April.  

5. People who won't let a conversation end.   I am a pretty friendly guy, but like everyone else, I have lots of different things to do, and there are some people I deal with who don't seem to get even the most blatant efforts to end the conversation.  Saying "I have to go now, I am late" seems to cause some of colleagues to block the door or grab my short so I can't leave!

At this point, I best emphasize that I am not perfect and have committed all of the sins listed above.  But I am trying to do such things less and hope I am making progress.  In closing, I have two questions for you:

1. What kinds of overbearing people do you find especially distressing?

2. How can you fight back against such intruders without being an overbearing jerk yourself?  In my old age, I seem to be using passive aggressive methods more -- being especially slow to respond to people who want an instant answer for example.   I still use confrontation but am trying to learn to be more polite about it.

This reminds me, I had a colleague ask a really funny and intriguing question a few weeks back: How would the Dalai Lama tell someone to fuck-off? I am using that as a headline because I think that might be the skill required here -- the ability to gently, firmly, and graciously assert yourself.  And it is a great question -- and it is a great book title too! 

Follow me on Twitter at work_matters.

Order my new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst.