How to Work With People When You Really Hate People
Preserve and Protect Your Time
I love my clients, really, I do, but ask me to hop on an impromptu phone call, and I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch. When requested to make some “small changes,” which would only take “five minutes,” when we know that five minutes means two weeks of revisions, conference calls and screaming into pillows, I’d rather succumb to medieval torture. Bring me my foot press, rack, and iron maiden!
In 2009, I took a job at an agency after a decade of being on the client-side and telling other people what to do. I quickly learned client service was about swallowing my ego and voice and having to pick my battles strategically. Open floor plans were a cruel form of torture where I’d spend days volleying between my inbox and the murmurs and shouts of those surrounding me. I might have even posted a photoshopped photo of me holding a butcher knife announcing my office hours. Enter at your own risk, and like that. Two years in, I would come into the office at six in the morning so that I would have a few hours of unadulterated quiet in which to work.
Until that year, until that job that would alter me in ways I hadn’t thought possible, I never understood how much quiet I required to function.
I don’t hate people — I just don’t want to be around them for longer than necessary. Prolonged people exposure — much like radiation or a body slathered in baby oil lying out in the midday sun — is toxic and terrifying. Drained, all the energy I have left is devoted to the selection and a viewing of a Netflix film while sprawled out, catatonic on the couch.
I need space — oceans of it.
Freelancing is often considered a lonely pursuit, and I’ve never found the solution to be more client calls, video chats, Facetime, etc. The salve for loneliness isn’t increasing the frequency of exposure to anyone with a pulse — it’s about refueling with the people who sustain you. People pay exorbitant amounts of money on co-working spaces, fancy clubs like The Wing, etc. merely to be exposed to other humans. You’re buying human contact regardless of the perks marketed your way, and you’re placing a premium on that purchase.
However, craving connection amid self-imposed isolation is different from needing to be alone. Some of us are driven by an impulse that demands time and space to think.
But humans are an unavoidable species, so I’ve found ways in which I can be my shiny, happy, effusive self to then flee into a dark room to do my work.
1. Set Office Hours and Honor Them: Says the woman who answers emails in less than an hour. Whenever I on-board a new client, I send them a “magazine,” which is a beautifully designed Keynote that outlines all aspects of the engagement. Consider it a logistical roadmap. My magazine includes:
- An open, personalized letter to the new client.
- Admin: financials, completed W9 forms, contact information
- Office hours: When I’m available for calls, the lead-time to schedule a call (I rarely do same-day calls unless it’s an emergency and I better see that doctor’s note), and the turnaround time re: communication. For example, You should expect a response to all emails within 24 business hours.
- Project timeline: A comprehensive timeline with working dates, deliverables due to the client and me.
- All pertinent questionnaires, requests, etc. with links to various files they need to a complete and a G-Drive folder to which they upload the files when they’re done.
The office hours are necessary as it sets the tone for the frequency and tenor of communication. Sometimes, I have to physically restrain myself from not answering too quickly because I don’t want a client to feel like I’m chained to a laptop waiting for their email to land. Legitimately, I’m focused on the more important work — their deliverable.
2. Don’t Schedule Calls to Make Sounds: In agency land, the volume of wasted calls, meetings, emails with everyone on copy, never cease to amaze me. I’ve had a zero inbox since 1999, and I’ve had executive roles. My emails are short and blunt. It’s rare you’ll find my emails (personal or professional) longer than a paragraph unless I’m dropping a deliverable and I’m laying out a roadmap that helps guide them through the deliverable.
More importantly, I don’t like filler and fluff. Calls to me are sacrosanct. It’s the time when we discuss essential components of the project, hammer out miscommunication, and finalize on our go-forward approach. I have a rule that if we’re still at it after 3 emails, we need to get on the phone to talk it out. Phones should be used judiciously to create clarity and alignment. Not for mindless chitchat.
I think people feel as if they have a call; they’ve achieved something, which is true, I suppose. They’ve won the fine art of wasting time.
3. Spend Time Outside the “Office” to Remember That They’re Human: Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not the colleague who joins the team at happy hour or any event where the capacity of a room exceeds eight. However, I have invited clients, colleagues, and direct reports out for coffee or lunch as a means to know the person as a person. You’ve temporarily abandoned your armaments; your phones are on silent, and you finally face the person with whom most of your relationships have been conducted behind a screen. Unless you’re a true sociopath, it’s hard not to have empathy for someone when you see them more than “that client,” “that social media manager,” etc.
In minor ways, we objectify the people around us every day. We reduce them to their titles and tasks, and it’s only when we know them, beyond the label we’ve given them, that they become human to us. And working with humans is a lot easier than objects.
4. Say NO and mean it: While many books espouse the magic of yessing everything to death, saying yes isn’t a blanket life strategy. Yes can keep you from the things you need to do to move you ahead. Yes can keep you from the people who matter most. Yes can keep you from being present and accountable in your work and personal life.
I say no ALL THE TIME because my time is valuable and my energy isn’t an unlimited resource. But I don’t flat out say no. Often, I’ll acknowledge that they’ve reached out, congratulated them in the space they’re in right now, make my refusal, but offer them an alternative — articles to read, referrals, a few suggestions, etc. 90% of the time, they don’t leave empty-handed.
Many people view selfishness as a pejorative. It’s not. Anything in its extreme form is dangerous, but there’s nothing wrong with protecting your time to be the best person for those in your life who matter most.