The Most Difficult People are Usually the Most Afraid
I’m a member of an enthusiastic team-based gym. The kind where you high five after every workout and yell things like “you’re crushing it Michelle!” I love that stuff. A new member, we’ll call her Rachel, joined and made it very clear she didn’t love that stuff. And since I was one of those people, I assumed she didn’t like me. She was vocal about her distaste, openly complaining about the trainers, the workouts, and the general pep.
I took it personal in every way I could. For weeks I’d complain to my girlfriend about how she was killing the vibe, until finally, tired of hearing it, my girlfriend said, “maybe she’s just feeling insecure about being at the gym.” That stopped me dead in my tracks because my girlfriend doesn’t usually offer people a pass. And for the first time, I took the stick out of my ass and thought, “maybe this isn’t about the gym at all.”
It reminded me of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career as a professional facilitator: The most difficult people are usually the most afraid. I learned this lesson from Barbara, a woman I met years ago when I was teaching public speaking classes for an improv-based training company. Barbara was in her 60’s with short gray hair and a crisp button-down shirt primly buttoned all the way to the top.
I started the class the same way we started every class, with a loud and uncomfortable shakeout (if you’ve ever done improv you know what I mean). Non-improvisers, aka, almost everyone in my classes, usually approached this exercise timidly but by the end everyone was having a good time.
Not Barbara. After several minutes of agitated sighs she threw her hands up and announced “This is STUPID! How am I gonna learn public speaking doing this?” to our entire group. I felt her words ripple over the whole class. Because if one person says it, then other people who were having fun start to think “Wait, IS this stupid?”
I was a younger trainer then so I didn’t talk about the brain and body connection and yada yada like I might now. But I knew if I didn’t do something, Barbara’s energy was going to infect the entire class like a rotten apple. So, I said, “It’s not for everyone, and that’s totally okay. Why don’t you take a break outside and we’ll be here if you wanna come back in.”
I prayed she wouldn’t come back. As a facilitator, managing that sort of negative skepticism in a room is tricky because you’re responsible for ensuring it doesn’t affect other participants. My wishes weren’t granted and fifteen minutes later Barbara came back in and rejoined the circle. To her credit, she participated in the rest of the exercises without criticism. To my credit, I welcomed her and integrated her warmly back into the class.
When we were nearing the end of the workshop, we did an exercise where you had to write everything you liked about yourself on a blank notecard. While everyone was scribbling furiously, I looked over and saw Barbara’s hand, unmoving. There was a stream of quiet, steady tears trickling down her face. I walked over to Barbara, her notecard blank, and she whispered “I can’t think of anything.”
I felt my heart crack into two angular pieces. It was a reminder that critical people are often the most critical of themselves. I leaned down to meet Barbara at eye level and said, “You came back in. That’s super brave. Start there.” “I’m not brave.” “Yes, you are. That was an act of bravery. Now write it down.” She did and we brainstormed other items for her list. Once she got a jumpstart, she was able to fill her notecard.
We closed the class with a gratitude circle, where you had to say one thing from your note card and then something nice about someone else in the room. I was blown away by the number of people who complimented Barbara for coming back, who offered her support, love, and empathy.
When we got to Barbara, she started to cry, but this time it wasn’t quiet tears, it was heavy, sobbing tears.
“Thank you all… for everything. For the first time in a long time, I feel good today. And Um, I hate public speaking so that’s saying something.” She thanked me for creating a space where she felt safe enough to be vulnerable and shared how hard that was for her and damnit by the end not only was Barbara crying, so was every other person in that damn circle.
I think about Barbara all the time.
So when my girlfriend pointed out that Rachel might have feelings about the gym, I decided to change my approach. The more I paid attention, I noticed that Rachel was trying to connect with other members, but in a different way. She just wasn’t the high-five type, and that was okay. It didn’t mean she hated everyone and everything at the gym, me most of all.
It was such a gentle reminder from the universe of a mantra that has saved me so many times, “the most difficult people are usually the most afraid.” Instead of avoiding her, the next time I stood next to her and we actually had a funny interaction talking about workout clothes. And while we’re not going out to dinner anytime soon, she did wave to me the last time I saw her. Progress! Sometimes the other person might be showing up the way they are for a reason you don't understand. Sometimes it's an act of generosity and empathy to meet them there.