How to Make Friends with Harsh People

By Bryan Orr

In my business there is one task that has always filled my heart with despair and dread more than any other: Going into a government permit office and applying for a permit.

The first depressing step is making your way through the cavernous and soulless halls of the government complex where the building department is located. You wind your way through a confusing labyrinth, following darkly shrouded signs covered in ancient government hieroglyphs until you finally arrive at your destination: A poorly lit room with several people slouched behind desks, the seating looks like it’s dated from about 1972. The shelving and desks match perfectly with the brutalist concrete walls and give off a deep sense of institutional woe.

Then there’s an old rusted metal bell on the desk… I HATE  those bells. The bells represent one of the great quandry’s of adult life. If you ring it you feel like a jerk, summoning some creature to do tricks for you. If you don’t ring it, you just stand there looking dumb until someone finally comes and asks, “Why didn’t you ring the bell?”

So today you ring the bell, and here comes Edna to “greet” you: “How can I help you”,  she says in a voice resembling a snappy groan.

In the past you would either ramble through your requests apologetically… or worse… you would try to make small talk and Edna does NOT like small talk, so you stammer out something about needing a permit.

She quickly retorts, “Did you fill out form 1127S? Did you apply for the Endangered Spotted Toad variance? Do you have a Tears of Slain Contractor Stormwater plan drawn in hextuplicate?”

Doing business requires that you communicate and if possible, get the permitting department and other government offices on your side. So what do you do when faced with people who are either harsh, combative or apathetic?

Create Listening Opportunities

People like “Edna” who work in difficult environments are rarely listened to. They are used to having to defend themselves, defend the policies and procedures they are forced to work under, and fight with negativity from every side. Stop yourself and ask questions that allow them to open up about their job.

For example: “How long have you done this sort of work?” or “Do you enjoy your work?” On the face of it these may feel like intrusive questions but most people will jump at a chance to talk about themselves, and if they do, LISTEN CAREFULLY. The typical knee jerk reaction in conversation is to talk about yourself and how you are similar or different to whatever they just said. Instead, ask them more questions and take any opportunity to empathize.

The Secret Phrase

Before we get to the secret phrase put yourself into an empathetic state of mind. Think about what it must be like to do the other person’s job and live in the shoes of whom you are speaking with. Consider all the times they may get yelled at, or how often they are demeaned and disrespected (often by applicants like ourselves) and how rarely they are listened to. After contemplating for a moment, say, “This must be a very challenging job and then fill it in with some of the specific things you figure they must deal with.

Whoa. You just shone through like a light beam in a tunnel of their institutional world. No one has ever asked them that question. Props to you

How often do you think Edna is actually given credit for doing a tough job that most people couldn’t (or aren’t willing ) to do? Not often enough.

Everyone wants to be validated for their place in world, given some credit for doing the thing they do every day; I know I certainly do.

This is not to say that using this phrase will always result in you becoming besties with the other person, but you may be surprised how quickly it can melt away the barrier between you and another human. More often than not you will find them helping you get where you need to go instead of them hindering you.

Let others know, that you know, that their job is challenging and important, and, by golly! they are a special sort of person to be able to do it (because they truly are). Who knows, you may make a friend in the process.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, Edna and I are going spotted toad watching.  

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Bryan Orr
Bryan Orr is a blue collar business owner who helps executives and business owners use storytelling to communicate powerfully with customers and staff. Bryan is a founder of an award-winning small business in Orlando, Fl as well as sought after podcast producer and consultant. Get to know him at Bryanorr.com.
  1. Isn’t it a little ironic that the government buildings are the last to get updated? We have some here in my town that I swear haven’t been updated since the late 60’s, early 70’s. It’s terrible.

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