Dealing with People You Canat Stand (You Know We All Do It!)

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I can’t put sugar on the rim of this glass. It’s a fact of the industry…and all service businesses. Even if you’re the sweetest person in your bar or nightclub, you encounter people who “get under your skin” and turn your day into a whiskey sour.

These demons may be regular customers…or co-workers…or your supervisor…or a vendor (whose products may be awesome, but his workstyle may be abrasive).

And yet, we need to serve with a smile. We’re in the hospitality business, after all. Being hospitable comes with the job.

The fact that a book called Dealing With People You Can’t Stand sold more than two million copies means that you’re not alone in your struggle to cope with the many types of humans who make your job and your life a little less pleasant on a daily basis. (In fact, Dr. Rick Brinkman, the co-author of the book, tended bar himself at one point in his career.)

We’re not talking just about the loud guy who’s had a little too much to drink or the patron who pushes his way to the front of the line at the nightclub. That’s the territory of your bouncers and security staff. The focus of this article is on those people whose behavior is just mildly irritating but whose communication styles and behaviors have a direct impact on your mood and performance. How do you cope without risking your tips, your online reviews, or your job?

The following are 7 great tips and resources that can be applied to both customers and co-workers:


This simple five-step process from Inc. Magazine is easy to remember. Listen, empathize, accept, respect, and negotiate. The first is most important. Our natural reaction when we are in a tough situation is to shut down or fight back. If you open up your ears and mind to a customer complaint or need (while keeping your mouth closed for a bit), you can think about the best way to respond.

Analyze Your Own Style

Over our lives, we are pre-programmed to respond to difficult people in certain ways. Do you have a tendency to fight or flee or shut down? When a customer is ranting or exhibiting irrational behavior, you can take certain steps to diffuse the situation. Make sure you’re aware of your own role in the interchange to make sure you’re not pouring gasoline on a flame. Here are some great tips from Psychology Today.

Learn the Art of “Mini-Meditation”

Of course you can’t sit down behind the bar on a Saturday night, burn a candle, and stare into space. But practicing a little mindfulness during breaks or days off will help you stay calm in tough situations. Thanks to technology, you can even plug into one-minute meditation exercises from your smartphone. These are just a few of the many mindfulness apps available for iPhones and Androids.

Share Your Challenges

You are not alone in standing up to the bar bully, dealing with the whining co-worker, or diffusing the never-satisfied customer. In fact, here’s a website where bartenders tell their tales of difficult customers. At your team meetings, talk about common issues and brainstorm and role play ways to cope with blow-ups and meltdowns. Train your staff on how to deliver great customer service. (If you can afford it, invest in professional training.) Despite your best efforts, sometimes losing a difficult customer is the only option. If you have an all-star team and your reviews are awesome and you just have a bad apple or two, you may have to make the difficult decision to let him drink his appletini elsewhere. How do you “break up” with a tough customer? Follow these great tips.

Edit Your Online and Email Responses

Going to battle or appearing overly defensive in a public forum (like Yelp or Facebook) can ultimately damage your own reputation – and that of your establishment. Kill ‘em with kindness. The L.E.A.R.N. rules apply online too. If a customer engages in a social media battle, attempt to diffuse it by offering a private email address or phone number. Apologize for the problem (even if it wasn’t really your fault) and make sure that everyone who is reading the posts knows that you are working to turn the situation around.

Is the Problem Your Boss?

That’s always a difficult one. You have two options: find a new job or work to make the situation better. Dr. Brinkman quotes Eleanor Roosevelt when he asserts, “You are no one’s victim without your permission.” The tack you take depends on how open that person is to constructive criticism. The folks at Harvard are usually pretty smart, so here’s what they have to say about how to provide feedback to the person who signs your paycheck.

What if YOU are the Problem?

Every conflict has two sides. Perhaps you are unaware of something you’re doing that causes friction. Are you consistently getting bad tips or poor reviews? Solicit feedback from people you trust about what you can do better in your job. Practice smiling. Sometimes you might have something going on in your personal life that gets in the way of delivering great service. Here are some great 10-minute hacks for busting a bad mood.

Dr. Brinkman sums up his philosophy in these four choices:

  1. You can do nothing and suffer;
  2. You can leave;
  3. You can change your attitude;
  4. You can change your behavior in an effort to influence others.

If you find putting on a happy face or diffusing tough situations increasingly difficult, perhaps you need to take some time off to reflect on whether your current position is the right one for you. Some people are simply not cut out for service roles. Plenty of hospitality positions exist at the back of the house. Examine your career goals. If you’re in a customer-facing role and you simply don’t like most patrons, look at opportunities to apply your skills to a role that requires less day-to-day customer contact. You’ll be less stressed in the long run, and perhaps your customers will be happier dealing with people who really love people.

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