Seeing Past Illusions 1



Consider the old movie cliche of a street punk, or a drunk in a bar, who unwittingly picks a fight with a Martial Artist.  According to the usual script, the Villain attacks with much enthusiasm and gets calmly "put away" by the Hero.  As with many forms of entertainment, it's part truth and part crap.


In the real world it happens less than you might think for a variety of reasons.  For the moment, let's take a closer look and see what lessons in that scenario can make you more valuable to your employer.


The first illusion is that the aggressor wants to "fight".  That's right - the most basic assumption is all smoke and mirrors.


Much like in the rest of the Animal Kingdom(1), the posturing, cursing, and chest-puffing is a display designed to mark territory, impress females, and establish "Alpha Male" status.  To be sure, this sometimes leads to violence, but usually the display is the whole point.


In the workplace, this often takes the form of a customer who didn't get extra pickles on their Barker Burger™ and blows a gasket over it.


In both cases the Real Issue is something that's going on "off camera"; and in both cases the secret is to NOT GET CAUGHT UP IN THE ILLUSION.  What you're seeing is almost always the SYMPTOM - not the problem.  The Great Pickle Riot of Last Wednesday happened because the customer feels powerless, and pushed around in other areas of her life.  Since she can't really pour her anger down on her boss, husband, kids, or plumber, it lands on you because you're a safe target.  Of course it's not right, but it's quite common; and if you're prepared, you can turn a potential "problem" into a customer for life.  (In the case of the Honky Tonk Hippopotamus, the desired outcome is different, but the technique is the same.)


What she needs at that point (besides pickles), is for you to listen to her!  When she walks out of the restaurant with her sandwich the way she likes it, SHE HAS FINALLY WON!  It's just pickles to you, but to someone who feels bullied by the whole world, that victory is as precious and sweet as any of Bruce Lee's battles.  It's a story she's going to tell her friends and re-live with EVERY RETURN VISIT to Barker Burger™.  It's the return visits - with her friends - that YOU have made possible by giving her this victory.  You listened, and became an ally instead of another enemy.  You absorbed her initial attack, and turned it into a win for everyone.


In the case of the Bar-nocerous, he's probably a big guy who's confused about the difference between Fear and Respect.  He was the Big Man On Campus in High School, but now everyone who's telling him what to do is smaller than he is.  Hell, even his wife can make him miserable, and she's just a Little Bitty Thing.  Again, though, his true objective is hidden; once you look past the bluster and "give him his pickles" (let him be the Alpha Male), he has all the victory he needs.  (Fortunately, the easiest way is also the best; just leave.  Better yet, don't be there in the first place.  Self defense at its finest!)


The secret to letting the emotions slide by and dealing only with the facts, is to not take it personally.  It's not about you.  (It rarely is.)


There are some additional factors here which are very important:


If this is the third time this month that the sandwich was wrong, you have some tightening up to do.  In this case, it's at least partly about you.  Here's how to tell the difference; if the freak-out is out of proportion to the mistake, it's them.  If they're just being snippy because they told you, you still screwed it up (again), and now they're late for work, it's you.  (BONUS PSYCHOLOGY TIP:  If you find yourself losing your mind because you didn't get your pickles, look around for things that you need to deal with.  You're welcome.)


I am, of course, using pickles as a metaphor(2).  Every person who deals with customers will face this challenge at some point.  Sometimes it takes more than nasty, foul-smelling ex-cucumbers to make someone happy.  Early in your working life, the "fix" is fairly inexpensive, but as you move on to selling cars, or building houses, things can become a bit more complicated.  At that point your obligation to your boss will mean that Cost Control is a bigger issue.  (We'll explore "Managing Expectations" in a later article.)


Some customers won't be satisfied.  Some people abuse the system by complaining about everything until they get free stuff to shut them up.  At some point you need to talk to your boss about "Refusing Service".  (Sometimes the Bar-rangutang isn't content with marking his territory.  Sometimes, the mugger doesn't want your wallet.  In these cases, their Broken-ness is driving them to look for Victims, and Not Being There is far more effective than Leaving.)


In any event, the discipline of Martial Arts (and of The Workplace) requires Mastery of Self.  If you yell back at the customer (or even get a little snippy yourself), you have LOST.  Lost the customer, lost your chance to turn a Negative into Positive, and (if you work for Barker Burger™), you've lost your job.  (Poking Bar-Zilla in the eye carries its own set of risks.)


In "The Art Of War" (a book that is at LEAST 2,500 years old), Sun Tzu said, "The battle is won in the mind, before the first blow is ever struck."  Responding to emotions with your mind gives you the advantage.  Responding with emotions is what children do and rarely produces desired results.


Peace be with you.



(1)  For many years I made a living playing music.  Sometimes in VERY nice places, and sometimes in Honky Tonk dives that make "Roadhouse" look like High Tea with The Queen.  From my vantage point on stage, I was able to watch the Human Condition like Homo Sapiens Week on the Discovery Channel.  (I'm going to enjoy writing that book!)

(1a)  Many of these observations were drawn from that experience, but some derive from a VERY good (and very intense) website called "No Nonsense Self-Defense".  The reader is cautioned; my writing is "a bit spicy" in the language department.  His gets Real in a hurry.


(2)  It's one of only two uses that I have for pickles.  The other is to freeze them and load cannons with them to fire at The Enemy.  I hate pickles.