When I was in my late twenties, I worked for a Solicitor who gave me a job when I was in severe straits. My first husband had left me with two young children and a huge lack of money and a lot of bills. This lawyer was an alcoholic; secretaries quit after a short time with him, although he had many supporters.
He was one of the kindest men I have ever known. By the time I worked for him, alcohol had taken its toll, and the clients he had were mainly people who had stayed with him throughout his career. Many of them were never billed; they understood him and his drinking well. Most knew to come to his office early in the morning when he was basically sober. But drunk or not, he never, in the time I worked for him, turned anyone away.
He taught me one of the biggest lessons I had yet to learn. And that was that honey goes down much easier than vinegar. There were times I would be upset because a client had been unreasonable and unmannerly...when all the stress people had because of their circumstances would be focussed on me. It was unfair; I would stomp around the office after they left, complaining bitterly about the way people deal with their stress. It wasn't my fault, I would say.
My position was full of stress on its own. There were constant deadlines; I was responsible for large sums of money, which were required to be paid out on certain dates. And I was largely on my own; my employer would oversee until the drink would take over, and then he would retire to his office with the door closed, along with the office cat.
One afternoon, after an unreasonable client was demanding his money that was being held up over some legal difficulty, I became angry during the consultation. The anger wasn't necessarily even directed at the client; there were many things that contributed to my state of mind. My life had totally changed at this point, with many requirements on my time...mainly from my two young children, who were not happy with their mother working all day, and their father gone.
The client and I were at a stalemate, he was shouting and I became angry enough that I made no sense, either. That's what happens when I get angry...it doesn't happen often, and when I do, realistic words and sentences disappear, and I look and feel like a complete doofus, which usually makes me more furious! We were not going anywhere. I felt I had no back up; it was in the late afternoon, and nobody disturbed my employer at that time. But I had no choice...the client was extremely insistent and unreasonable, over a situation in which I had no control.
As inebriated as my employer was, he defused the situation by including the client in a solution to the legal standoff. Gently, carefully and kindly, he asked personal questions I would never have considered asking the man. He drew the client out of himself and as a result, discovered why he was being so unreasonable. My employer read the man's body language as he wandered slowly out of his office, used his incredible intuition that was never blunted by the drink, and instantly knew something else far more serious than a delay in receiving his money was bothering the man.
He learned the man's story. And he did that with every client before any legal conversation ever took place. In this way, he would know how to deal with any problems that might arise.
The man's story made me feel ashamed of myself. I was young; I felt my problems were enormous and far worse than anybody else's could ever be. But I was wrong, and without chastising me or the man, I was taught a huge lesson I have never forgotten by an employer who was one of the greatest teachers I have known.
What made it so difficult for me to understand this man's anger was that there was very little money coming to him, in the ordinary scheme of things. But it turned out he needed every small amount.
This man had an elementary school education. He was a mill worker, who had recently lost his job, and now was trying to find consistent work as a handyman. He made very little money, but felt he had done the best he could for his family. But then further disaster struck...his wife and one of his small children had died in a car accident. He was left with two other very young children. He could no longer afford his mortgage payments, along with care for his children. He felt very much alone, and extremely overwhelmed with his life.
He had to sell the house he and his late wife were so proud of. The little money that resulted from the sale was to pay bills and allow the family to move back east, where he had relatives who could help him. And he had just learned that there was a job waiting for him, in the east, but he had only a very short time to get there and claim it. Any delay would mean the job would be given to someone else.
He had packed up his truck with his belongings and his children, and had come in for the proceeds from the sale of his house. Any explanation I had over the delay in receiving his money was not accepted...he could not deal with another setback...he needed his proceeds to travel, for gas and food and essentials. And he needed the money that day.
My employer asked him how much money he required. Taken aback, the man estimated how much the trip would cost. Taking his wallet out of his pocket, my employer gave him the money. And told him to pass it on to someone else, when he could, to someone else who was in similar straits. He told him his proceeds would be put into his bank account when the house transfer paid out.
The man, at first hesitant to accept such kindness, asked that this money he had been given be taken off the proceeds. But it never was. The whole of his money was placed in his bank account when the sale of the house was complete.
When my employer passed on, I found a letter the man had written to him. His life was much better now, he wrote, and the funds my employer had given him had been given to a family whose house had burned down. He included a copy of a letter that family had sent to him.
Tears ran freely for me when I found this letter; it wasn't only because my employer had passed on, although I felt devastated by his death.
I learned that other people have their problems, just as I had mine. And if I took the time to understand that what is at first apparent in dealing with people who are unreasonable, it may not be the whole story behind their behavior. I learned the clues to look for and I learned how to defuse situations in which there seemed to be no solutions. I learned to ask and to listen.
The biggest thing I learned was to treat people with kindness and concern for their plight.
And to pass it on.