Life doesn't always work out the way we want it to. It's hard to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune sometimes, but cultivating a professional mask can keep us from making our situations worse.
Whether it's dealing with critiques and comments from an editor or critique partner, facing dismissal or scorn from the public or other professionals, or coping with errors and slights, I feel it's important to avoid the temptation to strike back. Now, there is a balance between maintaining a professional attitude and having a backbone. Being professional doesn't mean simply ignoring what is unpleasant, but it does mean taking the time to decide on your course of action rather than reacting emotionally in the moment.
I have a series of questions which I usually make myself go through when I'm feeling angry or upset. Once I've gone through them, if I still feel the need to speak up, then I do. But they've kept me from digging myself deeper on a fair number of occasions.
Is there any truth to what the other person has said?
Sometimes people will give you useful information in a horrible way or they will share something which you didn't want to hear but needed to know. A bad review can highlight areas for improvement. A complaint or criticism about an event or behaviour can do the same. Even if I disagree with what someone has said, if there is some truth to what they've said, then I can't dismiss everything out of hand. I can dislike how they've chosen to share it, but their words deserve some consideration, no matter how much they might sting my pride.
Is this possibly a misunderstanding or misinterpretation?
If I had the psychic powers to always accurate predict someone's intentions, I would quit my job and start working for Psychic Friends. Even with the best intentions in the world, things get misspoken, misheard and misinterpreted. Maybe it's because I've done a lot of work with people on the autism spectrum, who have trouble picking up social signals and often unintentionally give messages of impatience and lack of caring to those around them, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try not to assume a deliberate slur or attack, giving the other person a chance to clarify their intentions. Sometimes it is deliberate, and then I have to consider my last two questions.
Is this someone I need to deal with again?
Idiots are idiots and there are always people who take joy in being offensive bullies. It is not my job to educate or improve them, so if I don't need to deal with them again, then walking away with my dignity intact is the best outcome I can hope for. It's not always successful, but I try not to take random opinions seriously, particularly if they are hostile. Engaging with them will only prolong the hurt and give them the satisfaction of knowing they've struck.
If it is someone whom I'll need to interact with in the future (for example, a coworker, family member or business associate), then it's time to figure out the answer to my final question.
What is my goal in confronting this person?
What am I hoping to do? What outcome do I want? Am I hoping for an apology or do I want to enact a change? For business, I will usually begin by seeing if there is someone else I can work with. My experience is that if they are large enough, most organizations are willing to quietly make alternate arrangements to avoid a personality conflict. Sometimes there isn't an alternative person inside the organization, so I have to search for an alternate service.
If I want an apology or a change from the other person, I've learned to be cautious in my expectations. Bullies do not become bullies because they are accustomed to considering other people's feelings. I can say to someone: your behaviour was not acceptable. But they may not be ready to hear it and I need to be prepared for a backlash.
That's my process and while it seems simple, taking the time to go through each question allows the immediate emotional impact to cool.
Realizing that I can only control my own actions and not the reactions of others has helped me to develop a thicker skin when dealing with others. Some people might find my approach to be naive, but I don't find a lot of virtue in assuming hostility and insult in the world.
That doesn't mean that there aren't hostile people out there. Recently the Ottawa Romance Writers had an extremely unpleasant situation at Prose in the Park. A woman who was not an ORWA member bullied her way into our tent and then proceeded to block a number of our authors by preventing people from going down the narrow aisle. She actively harassed people who were looking at our books, dismissing them as poor quality. She was rude to our authors and then left abruptly before the event was finished, leaving her garbage for us to clean up.
That entire performance was the antithesis of professionalism. She actively insulted and alienated a number of people who frankly have the power to block her career.
Added to the mix has been the reaction of one of the organizers, who has been hostile to our concerns. Initially, I was prepared to go back to Prose in the Park next year but his vehemence and aggressiveness is making me think twice about it.
Unpleasant situations happen, but I believe that how they are handled shows the quality of someone's character. I'd rather not allow the bullies and petty people of the world to dictate my actions but I also will not subject myself to their venom if I don't need to.