Coping with Irritable People

Is there any more overcooked analogy than the one about the lowly oyster taking a grain of sand and making it into a pearl? If we were to believe all of the motivational quotes, shallow platitudes, flowery poems and religious themes about creating something of beauty out of a painful irritation we would be surrendering our humanity. The oyster opens its shell to be able to gain access to microscopic food and dissolved oxygen through the sea water that surrounds it, but has no way to spit out the bad stuff. When a piece of grit gets lodged into the soft inner tissue of the animal it has to be painful. Since oysters also can’t swear, they cope by covering the irritation with layers of nacre to form a pearl… which to me would seem to be a bigger and more painful irritant. I know from experience… gallstones! However illogical, extending oysterism theory to humans would be like getting a piece of a foreign substance… say a popcorn husk… stuck in the soft tissues of the gums. We choose to swear and floss rather than grow an abscess around it.  

People have choices. When irritations invade our lives we are not powerless to do something about it. Our options to deal with the irritant are a little more limited when we encounter people who have decided to be painful. I wrote an article Antivirus Against Toxic People in which I pointed out five ways that problem people can be handled from a human resources perspective. Sometimes the logical conclusion of that exercise is the fact that there is no solution. Inevitably this puts us back in touch with the basics: there are only two ways to deal with the irritant.

Education – There are two aspects of learning and it is not always one-way.

  1. Make an attempt to educate the irritators on the error of their ways. If the world is marching in one step and the out-of-step marcher is stepping on the heels of progress something must be done. It is usually easier to correct the marcher than the rest of the parade. Professional therapy maybe the only alternative that works.
  2. Listen carefully. Someone that appears to be an irritant may only be a rebel with a different focus. Observe their words and actions to see if they are using their ornery voice or their omen ability. Sometimes the voice of change means educating ourselves that we are in a rut and that we should join the irritation march.

Elimination – Getting rid of the problem person [legally, of course] also has two perspectives.

  1. Chronic negativity is one thing, but millions of people become angry every minute. Anger is an honest human emotion. If it is possible to eliminate the irritation to the persistently irritable person, the problem is solved… for now. Responding to anger with anger is never a solution and only adds to the irritation.
  2. As a last resort to allowing dissident voices to tear down a carefully built organization composed of a culture of inclusiveness, sometimes excluding the irritant by termination is the only way… fire them. Although this may seem counter to the “inclusive” concept there is sometimes a need to excise cancerous growths that could spread to others. Sacrifice the one for the many.

If Education and Elimination fail, people also have another built-in characteristic that is instrumental to combating the plague of irritating people: Escalation. The social aspect of our existence allows us to band together and form a unified defense. The act of appealing to others for assistance translates to never having to act alone in arriving at an answer. Collaborative action enhances social solutions to difficult problems… even people problems. If all else fails, take a swim in salt water and be careful to avoid sand in your shorts… you will not be able to make a pearl no matter how hard you squeeze.


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