Turning Tormentors Into Teachers

A gym owner argues with a staff member.

By Per Mattsson, Certified Two-Brain Business Mentor

Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “wrang-wrangs” to describe great teachers who are placed in our lives disguised as difficult, confrontational, disrespectful and sometimes horrible people. They are placed there on purpose and can teach us important lessons—if we are willing to listen and learn.

Let me guess: Often when you have an upcoming meeting with a confrontational employee, you feel that you just want to give up. It feels like every conversation with this person is something of a battle and a struggle.

What if, instead of dreading the meeting and the possible battle, you shift perspective and use another approach? Try this:

  • Imagine that your employee has good intentions but is a bit rough around the edges.
  • Try to align with your employee, and you might be better able to direct them.
  • Arrange the furniture so you sit next to each other and face the same direction instead of sitting opposite each other.


You can expect confrontational people to begin by stating, with intensity, all that they think is wrong with the business or with you as a leader. Your initial response might be to answer back and resist the attack, but instead I want you to try this: Refocus your attention to listening and understanding.

If you just sit there quietly for a while, some new things might happen. Instead of coming back with answers, you might start asking questions like this:

  • “What do you think is the real nature of the problem?”
  • “What actions would you suggest to solve this problem?”


Now, instead of arguing, you are collaborating! The atmosphere changes and you take your first steps toward a new sense of teamwork. You are aligned, and both you and your employee begin working on solving the problem. You are slowly turning one of your tormentors into your teacher!


More Tips for “Tormentor Training”


It’s hard to like everyone. Some people we get along with. Others always seem to be a struggle. As time passes, you’ll probably just want to be as far away from the tough ones as possible.

But you still have to work with these people, and our reactions in their presence give them a kind of power over us. If we instead try to understand them, we take the initiative. At worst we learn something, and at best we turn them into an ally and improve the team and the atmosphere.

To turn your tormentors into teachers, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is this person in other surroundings? Is this a parent, friend, musician, someone’s loved one? Are you only seeing the annoying parts? What might this person be like in other places? Widen your perspective.
  • What is this person’s positive intention?
  • What does this person really want underneath this disrespectful behaviour? Respect? Control? Attention? Being involved? Perhaps you have similar goals though you try reaching them differently.
  • Why do you think this person behaves is this way?


You may not have considered that their actions might have little to do with you. Most of us operate out of habit and can’t change because we don’t know any other way. Perhaps you are the one who can help them find other ways? Suggest new approaches and give them new perspectives. Be their teacher!

Instead of wishing that other people would change, start with yourself. This does not mean you are wrong or that you will change your opinion. All it means is that, in order to resolve the conflict, it works better to start with what you can control: you.

You are doing this change for you. You are stuck and want to get unstuck. You have used strategies that haven’t been working, so now you are trying something new. Make new choices about how to respond to difficult people in your life and you will take the power back. More opportunities to “dance with conflict” will come as your relationship with your employee changes and grows.

We all have challenging people in our lives. Will they be your tormentors or teachers?

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