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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

How to deal with difficult people – a lesson from Stoic Philosophy

Two days ago, I was in Barcelona airport, preparing to catch a flight to Birmingham, UK. I was coming over to visit my 96-year-old father who lives in a small village in Worcestershire.

I was in a good mood because I was bringing my wife and daughter with me for the first time since the Pandemic.

However, things didn´t exactly go according to plan. Despite getting to the airport over two hours early and having already checked in, we still had to deposit a suitcase. The whole place was in chaos. A huge queue of people snaked in front of us at the check-in desks with luggage spread everywhere across the concourse.

Unfortunately for us, the only direct connection to Birmingham from Barcelona is run by a low-cost airline which has a famously poor reputation for customer service. (If you live in Europe you can hazard a guess which one I am talking about!).

Their entire system had collapsed and there were only two desks open to try and manually cope with hundreds of passengers, many of whom were late and becoming more and more desperate.

The check-in staff clearly had no idea what they were doing. Despite the problem being caused by their company they nervously snapped back at the customers whenever someone asked a question or tried to insist that they needed a solution.

“Don´t raise your voice at me! It is not my fault. Wait in line” said one of the desk staff in a defiant tone. “Just get back and wait”.

People around us got more and more indignant. “How could they be so rude?” The staff were making people turn angry.

But what was the point of getting annoyed? Was it going to help? I tried to remain calm and just look for the best way to get our bag checked in and to get on our flight.

The situation made me think of one of the best quotes from my favorite philosopher, the Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”

I love this quote, which comes from Meditations, the personal journal that Marcus wrote to himself.

Here is the emperor of Rome, one of the most powerful humans to have walked the planet. He could do what he wanted and dish out punishments freely to anyone who bothered him.

Yet even he suffered from idiots, surly staff, people that were rude or dishonest. He was just

like you or me. Humans have always been the same throughout history. What he was suggesting we do is to prepare ourselves each morning to be ready to meet these people and their attitudes.

The Stoic philosophers believed that you should only be concerned about the things that are under your control. You should not allow yourself to be bothered by things that you cannot control.

They called this principle the “Dichotomy of Control”.

One thing that is completely out of our control is someone else´s attitude. The Stoics said that we can choose how we react to what other people do and say.

Getting angry makes no sense.

Rather than getting irate we should try to stay calm and look for how to get the best out of the situation.

Marcus Aurelius realized that bad or stupid people will always exist in the world, period. They will do things that will be wrong. An effective way to reframe how we interpret their behavior is to see them as being ignorant to what they are doing - they simply can´t help it.

This does not mean that you are superior to them. However, you can control your reaction to events and not lose your own self-control.

This is a key lesson that the Stoics give us which is applicable to all walks of life, not just when dealing with incompetent low-cost airline check-in staff!

At work we will have inevitably have difficulties with our boss, our staff or our colleagues. At any moment they can say or do things that we consider unreasonable.

When driving, we can be cut-up by an inconsiderate driver. Supermarket checkout staff can be rude, taxi drivers obnoxious, friends or even family can say things we disagree with…. you name it, everywhere and anywhere we will encounter difficult people.

We have two choices.

One is to let ourselves become unnerved, unsettled and angry. (you see some people in an angry state perpetually, complaining about everything).

The alternative is to remain calm, take the Stoic path and choose the best response for the situation and for us.

Back at the airport we switched lines to check our bag in at the “last call” desk. Probably some of the other, angry people back in the huge queue watched us and thought we should have waited in line with them, but by doing this switch we made sure to catch our flight (only just though).

Sometimes we too will be viewed as being unreasonable by others. We are also human. As I stood in line to go through security, I remembered another Marcus Aurelius quote:

“There have to be shameless people in the world. This person in front of you might just one of them…Remembering that a whole class must necessarily exist will enable you to tolerate its members.”

Difficult people are everywhere. Our task is to ensure that we don´t allow them to disturb or provoke us. The best way to do that is to remember the words of a Roman emperor, to be prepared to meet the challenge of dealing with these people every day and to always respond with dignity and calm.

If you would like to learn more techniques to control stress and anger and become an effective leader, contact me on the mail below.

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