Bad Behavior, Bad Person, or Inner Beauty?

At what point do we judge a whole person based on one part of their behavior? When I wrote a couple of months ago about my airport anxiety, several readers shared similar fears of missing their airplanes. The common behavior tends to be to get to the airport extra-early. Nothing wrong with that. What I did not share, though, was my recent bad behavior when I encountered an airport snag. I didn’t yell or throw a temper tantrum. I surreptitiously, almost unconsciously, ever so politely and tactfully, simply went around the line, straight to the front. Although I was quiet about it, there was no doubt to those who were with me….they thought I had lost my mind. It was exceedingly rude. But does my bad behavior make me a bad person?

How often do we encounter someone whose behavior we don’t like, and judge the behavior as representative of their whole person? Sometimes other professionals tell me about clients they keep, but don’t like. In some cases, the client behaves in some repetitive way that is bothersome to the professional. Perhaps they ask too many questions. Or complain about fees. How could they get the client to stop?, they wonder aloud.

I try to remind myself of a concept I first read in a business book which I don’t recall the name of in the early 2000s. In it, the author was riding the crowded subway in New York City. A man did something rude which offended the other passengers. It turned out his wife was in the emergency room. He was stressed, and he couldn’t get to the hospital quick enough. The author’s demeanor took on a different tone once he uncovered this fact.

When I encounter unlikeable behavior, I remember there is often an emotional component lying directly underneath. Many financial professionals don’t believe emotions are any of our business, or that they are ill-equipped to handle them, or that they just don’t have the time. To me, though, avoiding a conversation about emotions is like sitting in the back row of the bus while the emotional one drives. Simply noticing someone’s behavior out loud, but in a nurturing and caring way, can bring the emotion – the real reason for the behavior – to the surface. My experience is that this revelation is often a source of great relief, to both parties. Therapy skills are rarely required – only empathy and understanding. And the better news is, with good listening skills, it doesn’t take that long. In fact, getting the emotions out on the table can save many circular hours repeating the same behavior over the same subject, wondering what we can do to get the person to stop or to change.

Separating the behavior from the person turns many annoying people (to me) into gems. Understanding where someone is coming from, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, has paid far more relationship dividends than brushing them off as intolerable. Remember the saying, “Beauty is in the eye of beholder?”

Granted, it takes a little more effort to uncover some people’s inner beauty than others’. When the gem inside is lying beneath an ugly exterior, it is natural to want to walk away or give up. However, there are relationships that deserve a little extra effort to simply say, “Hey, I noticed this behavior. Is something the matter?” Life-changing rewards await if we are willing to slow down, be silent, and let them reveal the good person they really are.

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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