We’ve all been there: someone says something rude to us and our instinct is to strike back with a quick-witted comeback. That’s what many people do. It’s also a big reason that many people don’t get what they want. Consider this example from my recent travels:
“Are you dense?” the gate agent blurted to me, clearly frustrated as I asked a question she’d be asked a million times that day. Only moments before, I had been sitting on a plane to Seattle when the announcement came over the PA system that the flight was cancelled.
The instructions were clear: check with the gate agent for reassignment. I was tenth in line. By the time I talked to her, this agent had already had to deal with nine angry customers. She wasn’t frustrated with me, but I knew that everyone else had verbally beat her up. I also travel enough to know how seldom that works. She had instructed the previous nine passengers to collect their bags, go through customs, and go to the Air Canada customer service desk for reassignment.
“I guess you’re right, I can be slow sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Her words finally caught up with her, and she apologized. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I didn’t mean—”
“You’ve had a long day. People are frustrated and taking it out on you when it’s not your fault. I know how hard that can be.”
She cracked a smile, the first I had seen from her since I joined the line. And she happily found me a seat on the next flight.
She was being rude. Yes. But that wasn’t the best version of her.
When people are rude, our subconscious interprets it as an assault on hierarchy instincts. Our evolutionary programming responds with thoughts like, “Who are you to tell me something so rude? I’ll show you….”
Our instincts are to escalate when really, we should be focused on de-escalating the situation. One way to do that is to take the high road.
Say something along the lines of “I can see that.” You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. But I promise the results are magic. It’s hard to be angry with someone who agrees with you. And when there is no one to argue with and they’re the only person worked up about the situation, they will quickly feel uncomfortable and try to correct course.
Making enemies is expensive. Sometimes you don’t even realize how expensive. I saw one of those other nine passengers two and a half hours later, running to the gate to board the flight I was on. They had only just gotten through the hassle that resulted from their dealings with the gate agent—while I had grabbed a glass of wine and read a book. They had no idea how much their rudeness cost them in time and energy. It wasn’t visible to them. It was, however, visible to me.
The high road not only holds your frictional costs to the minimum, but it makes you happier. You’ll go farther and faster than others in the same situation. Sure, it involves putting your ego aside for a second—but if you think about it, this approach can often be the quickest to getting what you want.