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The Stanley effect: How to work with a curmudgeon


March 2, 2012

Rarely do we escape the matrix of the business world without a “person who will remain nameless.”  This person acts like they get paid to spew negativity. They’ve perfected a death stare over a smile and make “Debbie Downer” seem like a relatively engaging person.

While you wax poetic, they wane problems. He or she is not pleasant and for the purpose of this article, we’ll call the person “Stanley” (played by actor Leslie David Baker) like the curmudgeon on the hit NBC show “The Office.”

Stanley is a grumpy journalist who I met just a short time ago. Our relationship was off to a frosty start after he made it clear that he DOES NOT like PR people.  Throughout the course of our relationship, he put up major roadblocks with technology and semantics that made it nearly impossible to work together.

Let’s just say that I learned a lot throughout our courtship and I’m pleased to say that it ended with Stanley requesting to work with me again. I somehow won him over. I strongly suggest that anyone who is working with a “Stanley” think about these tips to make the most of the situation:

• Don’t mirror their energy. You are in control of your own behavior — never theirs. If Stanley comes at you irrationally, disrespectfully or with aggression, then pause before you respond.  Take that moment to reset, breathe and think about what you’re going to say instead of reflecting with emotion. 

This is more difficult to do in person, but also something to remember when corresponding via email. It’s easy to fire off an email in Microsoft Outlook, but it could live online forever and come back to haunt you. It’s also difficult to detect someone’s tone over the Internet, so choose your words wisely.

• Know that you could be right. This is an anecdote from my mother — a Jane Ireland classic. If you’re going back and forth with someone and there isn’t a compromise, then say,  “You could be right.”  This is not conceding; it’s simply acknowledging that the person might have a point (even if you know they are wrong).

• Over-deliver. This is a great business principle, whether you are or are not working with a Stanley. One of the best ways to shut someone up is to let your work speak for itself. Consistently providing what the other person needs is the easiest way to curate respect and more important, trust.

Many times, the person needs you just as much as you need them. Make sure that you show them why.

• Try to understand others first and then, help them understand you. I’m a firm believer that people — especially those who’ve been in the workforce for a while — don’t change. One of my first managers was a lot like Stanley. She even had a copy of Stephen R. Covey’s classic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“ on her bookshelf.

Whenever I was in her office, I wanted to grab it, wave it in her face and call her out for clearly not reading it (or at least for not practicing what it preaches). This notion of understanding is the fifth habit in the popular self-help book — the idea of practicing empathetic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and be open minded about being influenced by you.  Try this in order to create an atmosphere of caring, respect and positive problem solving. Listening is a powerful tool — even if it is one-sided.

• Don’t make excuses for the person. It’s easy to say, “Oh, Stanley is really overworked,” but if you think that someone is disrespecting you, then speak up.

It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “When you say X, I feel Y.”  The key is not saying, “YOU make me feel Y” because then they might feel attacked.  This may not change anything, but it’s better to get it out than have it fester inside. If you bottle up your feelings, then you run the risk of exploding or having some sort of meltdown. Crying at work is not cool.

Elizabeth Ireland Elizabeth Ireland is PR program manager at Stalwart Communications, a San Diego-based marketing and PR firm. Socialize with her on Twitter and Facebook.
Email: elizabeth at stalwartcom.com



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