Why do some people get under our skin? Something they do or say pushes our hot buttons. Annoyance doesn’t foster productive negotiation, of course, but it’s not our fault that they’re getting on our nerves. Or is it?
Psychologists caution that when we have strong visceral reactions to other people, we should examine our own feelings and attitudes, not just theirs. If we’re honest with ourselves, we may recognize in other people’s behavior the dark side of our own nature.
Barbara Gray, professor of management and organization at Pennsylvania State University, calls this internal demon our nemesis. It’s always lurking inside us, ready to pounce.
Imagine that you have to negotiate with someone who seems belligerent. Deep down, you may actually be recoiling from personal feelings you’d prefer to deny.
To suppress our own angry impulses, it’s psychologically convenient to project negative emotions onto other people. If you bristle, suspicious that I haven’t been completely forthright, it might be because you’ve been tempted to be less than trustworthy yourself.
When someone is driving you nuts, Gray recommends that you turn the emotional tables: imagine what might prompt you to behave like him or her. Underneath outward belligerence, you may find anxiety or defensiveness. You may also locate your own internal nemesis, especially if the bargaining stakes are high. As Robert Burton wrote almost four centuries ago, “Every man hath a good and a bad angel attending on him in particular, all his life long.”
Projection is a two-way street, of course. Surely you can recall a time when someone made accusations and assumptions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with you. Gray counsels putting on an “emotional flak jacket” to deflect other people’s misplaced anger, though she acknowledges that this can be challenging. Taking responsibility for own complicated feelings doesn’t mean that we have to accept other people’s misattributions.
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