A long, long time ago, I had a very difficult client. She was nice enough to give me her business, but from that point forward she was anything but nice.
I had handled demanding clients, but I had had few that were so short, so mean. When she called to place an order, she ripped into my staff about what she wanted. When there were problems, and there were the inevitable problems, she was vicious, ruthless, and condescending. The most routine issues couldn’t be handled without the pain having to running the gauntlet.
It was easy to see how this client had bad intentions; she wanted to cause everyone around her pain, that she was full of hate.
I managed the client, and despite her difficult and adversarial nature, I hung in there.
She sounds like a nightmare client, doesn’t she? She wasn’t.
Making (False) Assumptions
Reading this story, it’s easy to make the assumption that this client was a horrible person. If you have had nightmare clients, you will recognize some of the behaviors, which were much worse and much more painful than I have described it. But you would be wrong to make the assumption that she was a nightmare.
Over time, my continued presence and my unwillingness to be intimidated or discouraged allowed me to get closer to this client. I took her calls, and I was never argumentative or combative. I hung around her facility and made sure what we were doing was really working and, despite her constant foul mood and temper, we were doing good work for her and her team.
One day I found myself in her office. We were communicating, perhaps for the first time. I did nothing to make a breakthrough in our relationship, except perhaps simply being present.
It was then that she described to me her situation. Her husband was in the hospital dying of cancer. She was working ten hours a day at her job, and then going to the hospital to see her husband. Most nights, she slept and showered at the hospital. Her husband had just undergone a number of painful surgeries, and the end was drawing near—but it was dragging on and she was watching him suffer through his final days. All of this, while her business challenges and demands were growing beyond anything she could control.
Had you made the assumption that she was a nightmare client, you would have been wrong. This is not to say that I was anywhere near empathetic enough to pick any of this up before she told me her story; I wasn’t. I was young and it was a big account. This was long before I would have considered firing a nightmare client.
If You Are Going To Assume
It is dangerous to assume that you know why other people behave the way that they do. You may believe that they mean you harm, that they want to hurt you, or that they have evil intentions. But these are negative intentions that you are assigning to the other person; their behavior may have nothing to do with their real intentions.
If you are going to make assumptions, make the assumptions that you would want others to make when they come across some of your bad behavior, like when you are in a foul and crooked mood or when you are short-tempered and snap at them.
Make the assumption that the other person’s intentions aren’t represented by their behavior. Assume instead that they may be struggling with some issue that is preventing them from being their best self. Err on the side of believing that they are under strain, and that they are doing the best they can with the limited resources that they have available, including the emotional bandwidth to handle everything that life is throwing at them.
Assume that there is more to the story than the behavior you are witnessing, and that the rest of the story isn’t known to you. Assume that it is there and that, if know, would explain a lot of the behavior.
Making the assumption that other’s intentions aren’t evil allows you to change how you handle your interactions with them. And by changing yourself, you can sometimes change the other person.
And hope like Hell that others will extend you this same courtesy later–when you most need it.
Is your behavior always aligned with your intentions?
When you are overwhelmed, are you always the best version of yourself, or are you something less?
How do you empathize when you don’t know all of what another person may be going through?
How do your relationships and results benefit when you assume that other people’s intentions aren’t evil?