"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 02, 2015
Don't Engage the Angry Lady
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

I am having a problem with a woman in my ward. She is always mad at me. No matter what I do, I get at least one indignant phone call a week accusing me of offending her or mistreating someone in her family. She turns innocent actions and remarks into evidence of my alleged rudeness, unkindness and deliberate disrespect for her and her children.

Even though her accusations are completely outlandish, I can tell she believes them. So I always listen and apologize and try to soothe her feelings. But even if I spend two hours on the phone with her (which is about how long these conversations last), or two hours talking to her at church or at my home, the problems continue.

Also, she tells anyone in the ward who will listen about the terrible things I do to her and her children. I try hard to be considerate of others, and I have never had anyone be perpetually offended by my behavior before. Iím getting really tired of this. What can I do?

Answer:

Have you ever met someone who is always cold? Who is not comfortable with the temperature in a room unless everyone else is glistening with perspiration? Who wears a sweater to church and shivers through Relief Society even as you are fanning yourself in your short-sleeved blouse to keep cool? Iím sure you know someone like that ó I do (and she is a lovely person).

What do you do about this person and her perpetual shivers? Well, nothing. She is always cold, so the fact that she feels cold at any particular moment does not cause you any particular concern. You donít try to convince her that the room is comfortable: if she feels cold, she feels cold.

Nor do you feel responsible for her discomfort. You instead expect that she will carry a sweater or scarf to keep herself warm. If she says to you, upon entering a room, ďIt sure is cold in here,Ē you smile sympathetically. You donít go hunting for a blanket or the thermostat.

I think your situation is similar. You are dealing with a woman, not who is perpetually cold, but who is perpetually offended. It is her state of being. And if you can truly say that (1) your behavior towards her is respectful and socially acceptable and (2) you have tried to mend fences with her, I suggest that you start treating her and her problems the same way you would treat a person who was always cold.

That is, you are kind and sensitive, but you do not become alarmed or rush to the rescue when she complains that her feelings are hurt.

Granted, this is not a conventional way to respond to a person you have offended. But the problem here isnít that you offended this woman. The problem is that she is determined to be offended by everything you do. Unfortunately, there are a few such people in the world, and when you encounter one, you cannot treat him like you treat regular people. You have to have a special plan of attack.

Here are six steps for responding to such a person.

One, put on your polite listening face. If you donít have such a face in your portfolio of expressions, you should get one. It is an all-purpose pleasant expression that conveys respectful listening, and no more. It is especially useful during bizarre sacrament meeting talks and middle school band concerts. In your situation, you will use it to communicate: Iím listening politely to your concerns.

Two, remember whom you are talking to. This is a person who is always cold. Therefore, if she feels offended, it is not cause for immediate alarm.

Three, reflect on your behavior. Was it objectively offensive? If you decide that it was, or that you could improve it in some way, you should not decline to improve it just because it was this woman who brought the deficiency to your attention.

Four, answer her complaints simply and kindly. Use a tone that is firm, calm and sincere, and not dismissive. For example, if she accuses you of deliberately not looking at her while she bore her testimony, you can respond sincerely, ďOh, Iím sorry.Ē

Or if she claims that you didnít bid on her cake at the ward dessert auction because you wanted to embarrass her, you can say, ďI was not trying to embarrass you.Ē

Five, do not engage. In the past, you have essentially rewarded this womanís wild complaints with hours-long conversations in which you attempted to reassure and soothe her. I can only imagine that she enjoys those conversations, since she calls so often.

In the future, however, I suggest you take the opposite approach: Once you have made your simple, kind response, you should refuse to engage in further discussion about your alleged offense.

You will not explain why you did what you did. You will not ask follow-up questions about her feelings. You will not even feel upset with her for making wild accusations. You will simply accept that she is offended and not try to talk her out of feeling that way.

Nor will you take to heart her complaints about your behavior. If you are earnestly confident that you behaved appropriately, you will say to yourself, ďThatís just Nellie being Nellie.Ē Then, you will redirect your thoughts, put on some music or pick up a book.

If you start imagining snappy monologues you could direct at this person, you will stop yourself by force of will and think of something else. You will refuse to let her monopolize your thoughts.

Six, excuse yourself. Once you have responded simply and kindly to this womanís complaints, and declined to discuss the issue further, you are under no obligation to hang around listening to her complain about you. So after you say, ďOh, Iím sorry,Ē you can excuse yourself and go about your business.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and sheíll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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