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Setting Limits with an Overbearing Friend

02 Aug

A friend of mine recently told me a great story – I found it a classy lesson in setting limits with friends who overstep.

She and her husband have a popular restaurant, frequented by hungry locals for breakfast and lunch.  The place is always hopping and a little overcrowded, and they depend on being able to get people in and out of there quickly in order to squeeze a decent profit out of the place.

One friend of theirs – a smart, loud, opinionated and somewhat dominating guy, with a good heart but not a clue about how to behave socially, had taken to establishing a beach head at one of the tables near the door. There he’d accost people coming in and those sitting at nearby tables (at top decibels) with his thoughts about town politics, people who’d offended him, and the issues of the day.

People couldn’t get away from him.  They squirmed and chafed in trapped irritation while receiving this blast of one-way, overbearing opinion. The only way to find relief was to yell for the check and book out of there as fast as possible. Many a delicious meal was left half-eaten.

As you might imagine, it got so bad that some people stopped coming, just to avoid this guy – or they’d come, see him and turn on their heel and go someplace else.  He was actually killing business.  

My friend was getting furious.  She also knew that, as intimidating and blustery as this guy was, he was also fragile and easily hurt.  In fact, it was this combo that usually kept people from telling him the truth. They just avoided him instead. He remained lonely, socially isolated and clueless about what it was about him that people didn’t like.  

Here’s what she did.  She invited him out for tea, saying they had to talk.  In her very warm and direct way, looking him straight in the eye, she told him that she was very, very upset with him. (This got his full, astonished attention.  He was used to people averting their eyes and looking for the door, not such direct and fully present contact.) 

She said she realized she had a choice: she could confront him and possibly save their relationship, which she ultimately cared about and valued, or she could say nothing, get more and more furious, and ultimately write him off as a friend.  She said she was getting pretty close to the latter and decided to try to interrupt the trajectory.

She told him he was scaring off customers with his aggressive, opinionated behavior.  He started to argue with her.  She interrupted him very quickly, mid-sentence, and said that this was not up for discussion.  She believed it to be the case, and that’s all that counted.  He could no longer come to the restaurant and hold forth.  It had to stop immediately, before they went broke.

He looked at her very plaintively, with tears in his eyes, and said, “Then when will I see you and Dave?” She said she would get together with him socially if he stopped driving them crazy at the restaurant.  First she had to get over being mad at him.  

A month later, my friend happily reported that they’d had a lovely time with this guy at a small birthday luncheon they’d given for a mutual friend.  His conversation was interesting, informative and mostly respectful of the other guests. The few times he started getting overbearing, he checked himself. He gratefully reported that he’d had a wonderful time.  They set up another gathering.  He no longer comes to the restaurant.  

Looks like a happy ending to me.  Here’s what I think she did that was so effective:

  • She told the truth, but with sensitivity, expressing her commitment to saving the relationship first. This allowed him to stay tuned to what she was telling him.
  • She was fully present, establishing direct eye contact and not flinching from fully connecting during an uncomfortable conversation.
  • She stated her issue clearly and directly, pointing to his behavior and not his personhood. She didn’t assault his character nor do any of the things most of us do when we’ve allowed infuriating behavior to go on too long; or to justify saying something that we know will hurt and therefore feels “mean”.  
  • She brilliantly did not get caught up in arguments about her premise, that his behavior was hurting business.  By not getting trapped into having to debate her rightness, she was able to maintain her agenda and not get distracted.
  • She built in a reward for his shaping up.
  • She went into the conversation willing to live with the consequences if it went sour – that the relationship would end.

Kudos to my pal.  She did an awesome job.  

I hope you’re all having as good a summer as she currently is.

All best,