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A reader asks, “How do you deal with people determined to be a pain in the butt?” They go on to give me a few paragraphs on a coworker who has excelled at being a pain. I have two immediate thoughts.

  • Never waste your time trying to explain your position to people who are committed to misunderstanding your position.

  • Never argue with someone who believes their own lies.

You can tell I was having an off day when I wrote those sentiments. I was having a fine day for a couple hours. My wife and I woke up smiling. At each other, no less, which is not unusual, and remains one of the things for which I am most grateful. My wife wakes up happy. I’m doing good just to wake up, but her happiness is contagious; waking up with her makes me happier.

Past that, everything was looking good around here. The coffee was a perfect blend of strong brew and warm milk. The news was interesting, but not overwhelmingly sad as it often is. The dog’s tail was a helicopter blade of happiness (also contagious). My meditation and prayer times were revealing, rewarding, and peace-giving. The weather was cold but clear, and I did not need to go out into it. My sister gave me a loaf of homemade zucchini bread for my birthday, and it was amazing. “Tis the season to be jolly :)

Then I looked at my email. This meant I had to deal with people. Before noon? Must I? Do you know how poorly they communicate? Do you know how blunt they are with unreasonable criticisms? People...ugh. In truth, people generally aren’t bad, but occasionally we all run into one who is, and the anticipation of another encounter with Mr. or Ms. Pain tends to darken one’s mood.

For the past week or so, I’ve engaged in a mild email debate on a subject about which I shan’t bore you. The subject does not matter. What matters is that it seems no matter how hard I try to be encouraging and gently preface an opinion on a hot topic, the other person’s return volley carries a scolding tone. Like my reader, I have had to deal with a pain-in-the-butt.

Professors often carry that scolding tone, I know I do, and I dislike my words when I recognize that tone. Nobody likes an old scold.

I tend to give others in the teaching profession, a hall pass on that tone. It comes with the territory. One cannot be a good teacher unless they know their subject well, which demands mincing words, putting down false premises, and correcting people. Teachers are arbiters of truth, which is never appreciated by people who prefer to believe their own lies.

Moreover, teachers who want their pupils to learn something are morally obligated to take the stance opposite their student’s. This is not because teachers are contrarians, though many are, but for two reasons. First, many things are not all that easy to solve, especially moral conundrums. Most people want hard things to be easy, so they cheat. They grab half-baked facts and present them as fully baked truths. The television news media excel at selling partial truths, and lazy students eat them like bowls of sugar (taste good, no nutritional value). Science is still learning, medicine still practicing, philosophy still pondering, and ethics still seeking the best habits. Everything, we know, is not as settled as some would have us believe. Working out a thing takes time and consideration of all the facts, but most of us prefer microwaved conclusions that conform to our preconceived biases.

Second, teachers tend to know both sides of their arguments and they want their pupils to learn something by picking apart both sides. The absolute best way to learn something is to defend it against its opposite point of view, then switch sides and defend that one,, which is slow. One of my best teachers taught me that whatever position I came to hold, I’d be a whole lot better if I tried to prove the exact opposite. Many times, proving the opposite proved the opposite and changed my mind. Other times, it proved my original position while teaching me compassion for the other person’s point of view, and at least kept me from becoming a boorish lout with hardened attitudes.

I’ve found that when people come across as combative, dismissive, or scolding, it is often because they believe their position to be morally superior and settled. In other words, they’ve made up their minds and become rigid. They have no intention of considering the other person’s point of view. When a new idea crosses their path, perhaps they feel threatened and sense a need to act quickly to shut down the other side. Preachers (a type of teacher), and anyone else who arrogantly supposes themselves to speak for God (any god will do in this instance) are especially prone to the shut down tactic. At its less threatening stages, such dismissive behavior looks like scolding. In many classrooms, maybe you’ve seen it, scolding professors soon become bullying professors. Not wanting to limit their scolding to classrooms, these Old Scolds infiltrate boardrooms, break rooms, and family rooms.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Bully and their less threatening partner, Old Scold, do not really like people as much as they like being right. They like feeling superior. People are a thing to put down, and being right an idol to worship.

Well, who doesn’t like being right? I do and I imagine you do too. Feeling superior, however, is not the point of academic debate. Finding the truth is the point. Building a friendship with another person is a concurrent point. I’ve found that building a friendship profits me most, while Old Scold puts the weight on being right. Aiming to find the truth in a nice way that builds a friendship is a happy thing. Some people prefer to be right, and don’t care a whit about making friends (until they have none).

So, here I am, opening this email and reading “blah, blah, blah,” said Old Scold with whom I have been trying to unpack a conundrum. Right beneath it is another email asking how to deal with a Pain-In-The-Butt. I hoped to develop a mutually beneficial scholarly friendship with both writers. But Old Scold, but that one thinks their points are right (and I’m a fool). Old Scold is so right that they’re not bothering to answer even one of my questions that might lead us to the truth. Instead, they’re putting me down at the foot of their chair. Dismissive people...ugh.

And then I realize I can let that person win. I have not the desire to argue at this wonderful time of year. The air is clean and crisp. The dog’s tail wags. My beautiful wife’s happy smile greets me. My sister’s now warm from the oven zucchini bread with butter, well, now you’re talking. It’s Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!

I think that I will delete an email message. I’ll go get a haircut instead.

Jack is the author of Mindset for Success and Can You Win an Ethics Award?