Seven years ago, I was couple of weeks into a new job when I met Peggy. She worked in administration and was generally acknowledged as being the most unpleasant person in the organization. I was encouraged to avoid her as much as possible.
My first few encounters with Peggy left me feeling that the consensus among my co-workers was startlingly accurate. I was fortunate, though, in that my job did not bring me into contact with her a great deal.
One day, while passing her in the corridor, I made a snap decision.
“Hi, Peggy!” I said with a broad smile. “How are you?”
She looked at my coldly and walked right by without uttering a word.
The next time I passed her:
“Hey, Peggy! It’s great to see you! How have you been?”
…and so on. My idea was this: either Peggy is really a softy at heart and I just need to break through her icy exterior by making her feel liked, or Peggy is really as evil as everyone believes and being effervescently cheery will annoy the hell out of her. Either way, I win.
The first few times I did this, Peggy responded coldly. After that, I managed to get a mumbled hello. Within a few months, she was smiling back and asking how I was in return. And a few months after that, she was stopping to have a chat with me.
Clearly, Peggy wasn’t evil. Possibly afraid of getting hurt or rejected, she had decided to be the first to reject others and prevent anyone from getting close. As anyone can guess, this was successful in preventing her from being hurt by someone she trusted, but didn’t make her any less miserable. Showing interest in her helped build trust, and the guard walls were gradually dismantled.
Since then, I’ve tried the same approach with several other people, and I came to call it all an extension of “The Peggy Project.” The same result has always been achieved. The most recent success was with a server at a coffee shop I frequent for my daily java fix. This woman just never smiled. Now not only does she smile, but she smiles a lot, and she has one of the most fabulous smiles I’ve ever seen, which makes me happy in turn.
I haven’t done anything special, and I haven’t changed anyone. I wish I could say that I invested more energy in trying to show interest in everyone I interact with, but that is most definitely an area on which I need to build. Maybe I had some impact on the change in the coffeeshop server’s outward personality, maybe I didn’t. It’s entirely possible that she was just going through a rough period in her life when I first began interacting with her, and later got through it. But I’d like to think that showing her that no amount of rancor on her part was going to dissuade me from being pleasant to her played at least a small role.
I don’t encourage this approach for someone who is just having a bad day. But if it’s a chronically cranky curmudgeonly crab, put your Peggy Project into high gear! 🙂
Today, I am thankful that people are always so much more than the sum of their outward behaviours, so exceedingly different than the “person” they present to us at any moment in time.
I believe the key to unlocking those hidden complexities is to be genuine and show interest.
What do you think? Or, better yet, have you tried The Peggy Project approach? How did it go for you? Please tell me in the Comments.