Seeing as we live in a world filled with billions of people, chances are a few of them are going to be arseholes — whether it’s a temporary issue or a permanent birth defect. Those people might treat us poorly, take advantage of us, or just hurt us for no good reason. When this happens, it’s our job to call them out on their BS. Here’s how to do that productively without stooping to their level.
Calling a person out on their bad behaviour can be a difficult task, so I consulted with relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil to get some professional advice on how to handle these potentially volatile interactions. Here’s what I learned.
Identify the Behaviour and the Source of Your Hate
Before you can do anything at all, you need to figure out exactly what’s bothering you. Roger points out that when we’re often bothered by a person’s behaviour, everything they do can seem like a problem:
When we are annoyed by someone’s bad behaviour toward us, it’s easy to develop an overall dislike for that person. While this is natural, it can make even the most innocuous behaviour seem bothersome. Do a self-check. Is it a particular behaviour that’s bothering you or is it something about that person’s personality? If it’s the latter, then make sure you can identify what it is that they are doing in particular that’s bothering you. While you may not like the person, it’s seldom helpful to attack anyone’s overall character. Know what lies at the heart of your annoyance.
If you’re having trouble identifying the issue, go find a friend and vent. When you do, be as unbiased as you can and ask them to tell you if they think they’re overreacting. If it’s someone who has met or knows the person you have a problem with and you can trust them with your feelings, they’re a good candidate to help you sort things out. Once you know what’s bothering you, Roger suggests making sure it’s actually worth a confrontation. You can do that by rating its harmfulness:
It’s one thing to be bothered by something, it’s another to be harmed. While one can argue that being bothered is a form of harm, use that as the litmus test for when to confront someone who may be dangerous. After all, we can be bothered by the most harmless behaviour if we’re having a bad day. That being said, it’s a good idea to define “harm” as something that causes you to experience an immediate negative outcome (for example, it interrupts your sleep or it costs you money).
Calling out someone on their BS or bad behaviour can be a big deal — especially for the target. It’s easy to get frustrated with others, but make sure you’re fighting a worthwhile battle before you fight it. If you’re just nitpicking silly little things, you’re going to look like the jerk.
Get Your Specific Complaint in Order and Confront the Person When You’re Not Angry
Once you’ve got the issue figured out, Roger suggests keeping your complaint short and specific:
When a manager has to officially reprimand an employee, he/she often has to be able to specify the exact incident that led to the corrective action. When someone is doing something that we find hurtful or overly-bothersome, we should be able to do the same thing. It shouldn’t be vague (“That person is mean”), it should be specific (“I hate it when that person eats off my plate without asking”). Doing this will help prevent you from entering a whine-fest when you confront the person because you’ll know where to focus in order to avoid a global assault on their character.
Your goal is to figure out exactly what’s bothering you. Prepare to be specific when you have your confrontation with the offending person. When you call them out, you don’t want the explanation to be encumbered by lots of useless details. That will just hurt your purpose. What’s also problematic is making that confrontation when you’re upset. Roger believes it’s best to calm down and approach the confrontation with a level head:
When teaching couples how to fight fairly, therapists will validate the clients’ anger if it’s an appropriate emotional response to something. The therapist will then tell the clients to avoid responding to their mates’ target behaviour while experiencing an intense emotion. The same is true for confronting someone. While it’s tempting to tell someone off, doing so will likely get them to focus on the fact you’re telling them off and not on what you’re actually saying. I often tell clients to wait until their emotions die down (usually between 20-30 minutes) before attempting to confront the offending party.
When you’re ready to make your confrontation, you may only need to tell the person that the behaviour is occurring. Often times people are simply oblivious. I once had a friend who used to stretch his legs across several seats in a movie theatre. They’d inevitable end up blocking me and I’d have nowhere to put my legs. After trying to imply that this bothered me, I just told him and he never did it again. He had no idea I, or anyone else, even cared. But in the event you can’t just make your issue known, Roger suggests explaining yourself through cause and effect:
Use a “When you [insert behaviour here], I feel [emotional effect of behaviour here]” statement
In order to avoid the aforementioned global assault on someone’s character (which will seldom lead to desired results), we should focus our statement onto the behaviour in question while communicating its effect on us. While it sounds like something we would use with a 3-year-old, sometimes providing a concrete “when you… I feel…” statement can help the person to focus on the behaviour and consider making a change. The “global assault” approach will likely get you to be branded a “jerk” in their book and can actually increase the behaviour if that person is a jerk.
You may not always succeed in changing a person’s bad behaviour, but when you’re calling them out it’s always best to be kind, polite, and clear. If things don’t go your way, you can at least leave the confrontation knowing that you handled it maturely and responsibly.
Be Prepared for the Worst
When you’re dealing with a truly awful person, there’s very little you can say to them to get them to change. For that reason, Roger suggests preparing for a worst-case scenario:
While most rational people will see you and your well-composed self as someone who is respectfully expressing a grievance and requesting a behaviour change without being mean, some people will respond negatively. After all, the most irrational of people are the ones who are likely to engage in the types of behaviours that may harm us. When the person you’re confronting denies doing anything wrong, justifies their behaviour, minimizes its effect on you, or tries to deflect by displaying outrage, it’s likely that they have a difficult time with empathy and are too caught up in how they are being affronted; this is their issue, not yours (unless you were a jerk when you confronted them). Unfortunately, these people are unlikely to change the behaviour.
In the event you don’t get the change you want, Roger suggests having a plan in place for how you’re going to deal with the behaviour in the future. Not every confrontation will improve your situation despite your best efforts, but if you have a plan B in place you’ll be in a much better position if they don’t.
Illustrations by Leremy (Shutterstock)