Dealing With Difficult People Without Losing Your Cool
by Juels Thomas
As musicians and support staff, we work in an environment with so many different personalities and egos constantly swerving around. It’s impossible to avoid a crash sometimes. We’ve all had to deal with a club manager, front-of-house engineer, guitarist, etc., who seemingly always just woke up on the wrong side of hell. Even chronically nice people can have bad moods.
The first thing to remember when you’re caught in a tense situation is to not immediately take it personally. All people have triggers that they can’t control. Maybe they didn’t sleep well last night, or they’re hungry, or they just sat in three hours of horrendous traffic. (Trust me—you do not want to witness the wrath that is me inside a car on a Southern California freeway after a sleepless night and no lunch.)
Another hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that verbally attacking the Cranky McGrouchersnarks of the world (in a direct or a passive/aggressive way) doesn’t work. If you automatically come at someone all defensive and amped up, that person will not respond well. Think about when people approach you like that. Would you rather punch them or calmly help them? Right. So it’s pretty unlikely that someone will want to be a sweetheart to you if she’s being screamed at or degraded. In fact, that’s a sure way to make life harder for yourself. You’re going to end up beating your head against the wall and staying pissed off all night, and the next day, and the next day….
The only person trapped in this cycle is you, by the way. I guarantee that 99 percent of the time the other person has moved on from your encounter and is out having a lovely time at the beach with the family, while you’re stuck ruminating in your head, kicking the dog, and being so certain that your undying anger is somehow teaching this other person a lesson. Nope. You’re actually only giving him the power to invade and ruin your personal time.
So, obviously it sucks, but what can we do about it? Well, think about what you want to accomplish. Do you really just want to tell this person that he’s a complete idiot and he’s doing it all wrong? Yeah, I know, I do too sometimes. But I have bad news for you: No one is ever going to say, “You’re right! I am an incompetent douchebag! Thank you for pointing that out.”
If you think you’re going to get them to suddenly see the error of their ways by berating them, you’re never going to reach your goal. But if your goal is to work with people without tearing your hair out—and it should be—there are more effective options. If you can slow down in the moment to remember that you have a chance to make or break the situation here, you’ll realize that’s pretty empowering. It’s called grace under pressure.
More times than not, we show up to a gig and things go off script. A piece of gear might not work (or someone forgot it), or the other band takes too long for its soundcheck. But it doesn’t help to fixate on who or what caused the problem. Yelling at the keyboardist for twenty minutes about how he was five minutes late and therefore what a loser he is doesn’t get you on stage faster. Yes, address that there is a problem, but focus on the solution. Then, as soon as possible, when the time is appropriate, calmly have that band meeting and ask, “What can we do so that this doesn’t happen again?” In general, simply asking someone who is struggling what you can do to make his job easier will make your job easier. Believe me.
Some people think that showing aggressiveness and anger is a sign of authority. Did you know that you can still be super-badass and “metal” and “ballsy” and be a nice person at the same time? It’s true! Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say, almost surprised, how so-and-so in some hardcore band is “actually the sweetest person I’ve ever met!” And no one ever loses respect for that person just because she’s kind and levelheaded.
But other times we run into people who have constant or disproportionate anger, believing it proves they are in charge or “too cool for you.” It really only proves that they don’t have adequate coping skills to deal with even minor frustrations. They’re basically feeling helpless inside, so all they know how to do is scream outside. Try to remember this when someone is angry at or around you. That’s not to say you should tolerate someone demeaning you. Absolutely not! But understanding a little bit about where people are coming from can help you in your approach.
Say someone you have to work with has a notorious reputation for being horrible. Most people would likely just avoid that person. But I once saw an artist do something incredible. All day we had been working with this particular grump who was making life unbearable for all of the bands setting up. So, by the time the opening act got there, the drummer had heard all the horror stories about this guy. Instead of rolling his eyes and accepting the hostility that was sure to ensue, our hero went straight up to the problem child and simply said, “Hi! I’m looking forward to working with you!” The snarling beast instantly transformed into a snuggly pussycat before our eyes. It was unbelievable.
If you anticipate a conflict, the best tactic can sometimes be to immediately defuse the situation by ignoring negativity. Tell the irate venue owner, “Man, I love playing this place. We’re going to do an awesome job for you tonight!” Empathize with the bitter audio tech,
“Hey, I know you handle a lot of people constantly coming at you with all kinds of crazy demands. You’re the expert. So if I let you know the overall sound we’re going for, can you let me know what you need from me in order to get there?” Just make sure you’re being genuine and not condescending. The point is to work together, not against one another. You’ll be amazed at how you can turn people’s attitudes around. And so will your friends. They might even start calling you “the douche whisperer.”
Calming people around you is a very valuable skill in this business. It’s hard, but the encouraging news is that each time you successfully deal with challenging people, the more confident and prepared you’ll be the next time. Which makes it less likely that you’ll let them drag you down into your own anger again.
This is all much easier to write than to actually put into practice. I am far from awesome at managing anger all the time (or most of the time, depending on who you ask). Some days are better than others. We all have bad days. That is certainly allowed. On the whole, though, the aim should be to not let anger—ours or anyone else’s—ruin the experience by focusing on the minutiae. You’ll only end up missing the good stuff right in front of you. Stuff like the fact that, in this blink of an eye that you spend on the planet, you’re playing music for a living. That people dropped whatever they were doing, hired a babysitter or took off from work, and came to see you. That rather than being anywhere else in the world, whatever city or club you’re in, you are here making people dance. Appreciate that!
And be nice.
Juels Thomas is the education and events manager for Drum Workshop.