How to Respond to People’s Failings and Ineptitude


The other day, my son burst through the door from a baseball game. Sweaty and breathing hard, he went straight for food. He flung open the cupboard, swiveled his arms around with the food, and knocked my full glass of water onto the floor. The glass (one of my favorites) shattered, and water splashed everywhere. He stopped…waiting for my reprimand.

“What were you thinking!?” burst out of my mouth.

Then I sighed, looked at him, and looked at his brother looking at him.

I love this boy. He was reckless. But I’m pleased with who he is.

Those thoughts changed the trajectory of my response.

“You were acting recklessly. Please pay attention to what’s around you,” I said sternly but without a hint of judgment or shame.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“I understand.”

It’s harder for me to be as gracious with the failings of adults. Adults should know better, I assume. If that had been a restaurant server who recklessly knocked over the water glass, I might have thought, “What an idiot!”

But maybe I shouldn’t assume adults should always know better. I’ve knocked over my own share of water glasses this week. And people knock water glasses to the floor all around me: A colleague who screwed up a client interaction. A family member who said something offensive. A store clerk who ignored me. A hotel manager who provided terrible customer service. A friend who let me down.

Water glasses crashing.

So much recklessness in relationships, interactions and actions.

The first human relationship principle, according to Dale Carnegie, is Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain. It’s the first because it establishes your mindset toward others. To see people and circumstances without negativity allows all other principles in human relationships to happen.

Of course, this is not to say that we ignore people’s bad behavior. My son’s reckless actions needed to be addressed. But they were addressed more productively (and the message was better received) in the context of appreciation for who he is.

Taking Pleasure in Others for Who They Are

Here’s what I’ve learned: Find pleasure in others, for who they are rather than what they do, so that you can respond with grace and clarity. And when others see you responding to them in this context, they will be more receptive.

Sound idealistic or impractical? Maybe you’re thinking, what about that perpetually difficult or incompetent person? Well, perhaps the nature or structure of the relationship with that person needs to change.

That said, consider the example of bishop Monsieur Myriel in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. When the police tell him that he’s been robbed by Jean Valjean, he doesn’t respond with complaint or condemnation! Rather, he graciously assures the police that these were gifts to Valjean and that he had still not taken everything given to him. Later, the bishop challenges Valjean to change his criminal ways—which he does, inspired by the bishop’s response. It was a response that addressed the behavior while taking pleasure in the perpetrator.

But, you might ask, isn’t it OK to be direct with others about their failings? I don’t have time for niceties or sugar-coating my message.

Of course not! Neither do I. Following Dale Carnegie’s first principle in human relationships is not about suppressing your emotions or avoiding directness. It’s about productively directing your words, thoughts and emotions. I will listen to you give me direct feedback, anger and frustration all day long, just so long as I genuinely believe that you’re pleased with who I am in spite of what I may have done.

So take pleasure in who people are, even when the glasses are crashing around you.

Who needs you to respond to them with less criticism, condemnation, or complaining?

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