I recently had a client express a 3rd party point in a mean way, with unnecessary (and exaggerated) detail which begged the question – why? Why do some people decide to say certain things, in a certain unpleasant way – what is the point?
While this didn’t bother me as much as it might have bothered another (I have pretty thick skin), it did make me wonder about the motivation for this behavior for longer than if I had just moved on from the situation. I took some time to think through what happened, as a way to learn more about this personality trait.
The major reasons that someone is mean are:
1) To make you feel bad, which somehow makes them feel good (warped, but it happens when the person has low self-esteem)
2) To take you down a peg, if they feel you need taking down (by another name, jealousy)
3) They really believe in what they are saying and further believe that you need to hear it (i.e. big ego) plus absence of the empathy gene
4) They love to be the harbinger of bad news and enjoy seeing the damaging reaction (sadist)
5) Other people do it to them, so one bad turn deserves another – not! (misery loves company)
6) Nasty people simply exist
Knowing the various reasons why someone might behave in a mean way is only one part of the equation. The second part is what to do with the knowledge. This is where many people get hung up – they either don’t do anything with the information, or don’t know what to do with it, once they know it.
The easy route (we all like to take the easiest route) is to push the mean communication aside and not deal with it. “He’s just having a bad day” or “that’s just the way he is” are common dismissals, which are fine to follow, if you don’t care about the relationship much. If you do care about the relationship, or you need to care because the person is a big presence in your life (i.e. boss, close co-worker) the hard route is to address the situation (being confrontational – oh my!) so you can work out how to deal with it properly.
Let’s take the above reasons one at a time and walk through a healthy way to communicate back: RE: 1) Recognize that it’s a self-esteem issue on his part and not a personal attack on you. Help build his self-esteem if so desired, but recognizing it for what it is, and for what is not, is the biggie.
RE: 2) Recognize that it’s his jealousy issue against you that’s the root cause, not the item itself under discussion; he will jump on any fault he can find in you, so this is a personal attack. Dealing with jealousy is best done by taking you taking your own self down a peg, demonstrating that “you and I are a lot alike” which is how to create rapport with someone who feels dissonance.
RE: 3) Ask, “Would you help me to understand why you think that?” Asking someone with a big ego for his advice strokes his ago. “Tell me, what would you do if you were me?” even if you have no intention of following his advice. Letting him give his advice unchallenged lets you win this round.
RE: 4) Don’t give credence to this type of behavior. The only way to shut down bad behavior is to not give the expected reaction. When it doesn’t get the desired attention, bad behavior eventually stops.
RE: 5) Ask, “I wonder why you would say that?” The direct approach, with genuine curiosity, helps him to recognize an unwanted behavior pattern that does not need to be replicated.
RE: 6) Serious negative personality types that won’t change need to be avoided.
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: Mean communication is often symptomatic of deeper issues on the speaker’s part. While we can’t change another person’s behavior and can only change our own behavior, what we don’t but should do, is to change our reaction to another person’s behavior. This is within our power to do, but often we don’t exercise this power, and instead go into emotional reaction mode, responding with shock, hurt feelings, or dismissal. There are better ways to deal, which work towards stronger communication.