2013-03-20

Why Very Demanding People Always Win

In school, we say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In the workplace, we say that we must learn to toot our own horn a bit in order to get noticed in order to advance our careers. In politics, we say that it is necessary to raise awareness of an issue in order to affect change. These are different ways of saying the same thing: Those who make their demands known are those who get their demands met.

Before I tackle this idea, let me first make it clear that there is a positive aspect of this and a negative aspect of this. The positive aspect of this would be the fact that, whenever we have emotional or physical needs, it is important to communicate with others so that we can get the help and support we need. This kind of communication is an unequivocally good thing. No disputes here.

The negative aspect of this is when one demands more than one's due, or when one's demands become a burden on others, or when one makes consistent demands to the detriment of others.

In order to differentiate between the two, we apply a sense of justice. A full discussion of justice is out-of-scope here, however, and we will simply have to accept it as given that each of us has a reasonable and acceptable sense of justice, even if we don't always reach the same conclusions*.

The Many Ways People Are (Negatively) Demanding
Let's start with a few examples.

John is an ambitious consultant. In the workplace, he is quick to ask questions and to request that other, more experienced consultants help him solve the problems he encounters in his project work. He spends a great deal of time having one-on-one interaction with his supervisor, dominating the supervisor's time and cultivating a closer relationship between them than the other employees have, a relationship based solely on the fact that he has spent a disproportionately greater amount of time with the supervisor. When John's projects go over well, John is quick to dispense his advice and lessons learned to his colleagues. When John's projects do not go over so well, he is quick to blame the project's other contributors for the problems they all faced. When interacting with larger groups of colleagues, John condescends to his peers in order to make himself appear more knowledgeable, while at the same time he supplicates to his superiors beyond the call of good taste, thereby captivating their attention and preventing them from noticing other employees. In all ways, John is totally over-bearing.

Ralph is always in crisis**. No matter what seems to be going on in anyone else's life, Ralph's thoughts are dominated by his own problems. When Ralph talks to his friends and family members, he steers the conversation toward his problems and how they can be solved. When he is actually required to respond to the problems of other people, he is only capable of re-framing the problem in such a way that its essential characteristics are the same as one of his problems. Therefore, if his friend is dealing with a difficult coworker, Ralph will discuss his friend's issue as though the coworker is exactly the same as someone difficult in Ralph's own life. This perspective will not merely be informed by Ralph's problems, but rather Ralph will be unable to see any aspect of his friend's problem unless he (Ralph) assumes that the problem is exactly like Ralph's own problem. When Ralph solves one problem, the celebration is fleeting. He quickly advances to the next crisis, which then begins to occupy his every thought. In all ways, Ralph is totally over-bearing.

Fred is not the center of his own universe, nor does he live in constant crisis. Nevertheless, Fred has emotional issues that he is trying to work through. These issues take up a lot of space in his thoughts, and as a result of that, Fred falls into a pattern of analyzing all things from the perspective of his own emotional issues. Whereas Ralph will only be able to understand problems that Ralph himself is going through, Fred has a good understanding of other people's problems, and a large amount of empathy. Unlike Ralph, however, Fred has created a world in which his own personal issues are the primary problems of the universe in general. Fred's explanation for all problems - even those experienced by other people - is the same as the explanation he has developed for his own emotional issues. Therefore, whenever any discussion comes up, Fred's lone contribution to it is to find a way to rationalize the issue from the perspective of his emotional issues. If Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of generosity, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of generosity, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are generous and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of generosity possessed by the relevant parties. If, on the other hand, Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of attentiveness, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of attention, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are attentive to others and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of attentiveness possessed by the relevant parties. If, furthermore, Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of maturity, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of maturity, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are mature and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of maturity possessed by the relevant parties. No matter what Fred's particular explanation is for the issues he has, Fred will apply that explanation to each and every situation he and anyone else faces. In this way, Fred is totally over-bearing.

How Being Demanding Affects Others
I have called John, Ralph, and Fred over-bearing because most of us will agree that their behavior is very much so. Yet, if it were so easy to declare someone over-bearing and walk away, the story would simply end here (or, more realistically, I would never have started writing this blog post).

The reason being demanding or over-bearing is a problem is due to the fact that the rest of us are extremely tolerant of this behavior. We have good motives for tolerating it. We tolerate John because we wish to appear cooperative in the workplace, and we wish to succeed on projects even when we must work with John. We tolerate Ralph because he is a dear friend or family member whose well-being is truthfully very important to us. We tolerate Fred because he is a good listener and an empathetic person, so we recognize the value he adds to our lives.

Unfortunately, if we indulge the demanding people in our lives, John will throw us under the bus, Ralph will ask for much more than we are even capable of giving him, and Fred will unwittingly pull us into an emotionally fragile world in which everything about the universe is rooted in a psychological wrongdoing that occurred only in Fred's life. Thus, indulging the overly demanding people in our lives subjects us to the threat of (1) looking bad, (2) taking on undue hardship ourselves, or (3) getting sucked into someone else's emotional problems in such a way that they can adversely warp our own perspective.

Each in their own way, John, Ralph, and Fred all take advantage of us. John takes advantage of the fact that the person who first acts over-bearingly in the workplace controls the social dynamic; this is social manipulation, basically. Ralph takes advantage of our desire to be supportive. Fred takes advantage of our respect for his point of view.

All of this is true, but there is also one other crucial aspect of the dynamic of very demanding people.

Social Cooperation And The Desire To Smooth Things Over
We humans have an inert and probably instinctual desire to facilitate social cooperation. Every event in human history is testament to that fact. We need not study history to see it, of course. Every moment you spend with others is a moment in which you are working to facilitate cooperation among you, on some level.

Being very demanding is highly unpleasant, and clearly uncooperative from a social standpoint. However, when individuals violate minor social mores, they are not ousted from the group immediately. Whenever someone rubs up against the group in the wrong way, the group will immediately respond by giving the individual the chance to either redeem himself/herself or take a mulligan.

Consider situations in which someone accidentally says something embarrassing. The group's reaction is often to stay silent in hopes that the offender will diffuse the situation voluntarily. Sometimes the group responds with laughter, which is an attempt to dismiss the offense by turning it into a humorous anecdote.

Whatever the specifics of the reaction, people ensconced in social circumstances experience great discomfort when one group member commits an offense. The social pressure of the situation seems to inspire us to devise ways to forgive the offense while simultaneously maintaining all members of the group. We make allowances for the transgressor, our minds create excuses and opportunities to allow the offender to "make up" for what has been done.

The Power Of Escalation
Now let's return to our very demanding people.

John understands (at least, on some level) that his actions violate the social norms, but he also understands (again, on some level he understands) that the group will be highly reticent to dole out punishment for his behavior. The few that dare to do so will only make the group dynamic more uncomfortable, and then they, not John, will receive the group's wrath.

Ralph, too, understands that his problems make other people uncomfortable. In fact, he expects this to be the case since, after all, his problems also make he himself uncomfortable! Ralph's whole motivation is alleviating his own discomfort, and he knows that those who take the time to listen to his problems will be moved to express some form of sympathy. They would be uncomfortable behaving otherwise, and even if not, Ralph could quickly escalate the situation by claiming righteous indignation at the fact that they had failed to express their empathy. The resulting escalated social conflict would be sufficiently uncomfortable as to inspire the desired sympathy.

Fred understands the respect we hold for his point of view, and he values our friendship. However, Fred desperately needs his phantom psychological explanation validated by other people in order for him to maintain its illusory explanatory power. So, if we disagree with Fred, he will staunchly repeat his explanation again and again until the listener acquiesces. Minor disagreements among friends are insignificant; major disagreements wound deeply. Therefore, Fred is willing to create mountains out of molehills if it serves his illusion. Dealing with Fred is particularly tricky, since he will soon respond to a prolonged conflict by creating a rationalization for why the listener, too is guilty of the same underlying problem that has caused Fred so many emotional problems in the past. The listener, on some level, will pick up on this dynamic, and will work to assuage Fred and maintain a positive relationship with him.

Hence, in all three dynamics, the very demanding person will employ escalation tactics to manipulate other people into behaving in ways that serve their demands. Meanwhile, the rest of us are all too willing to give in to their many demands to maintain the social order and to avoid further group conflict.

Conclusion
At some point, demanding people have learned just how elastic the social order really is. They have learned better than others that much can be demanded of the group before it starts to break down or wear thin. Of course, people are individuals, and we all have varying levels of tolerance for the demands of others, as well as for the particular kinds of demands being made. But because many of us are highly indulgent of any demands (we want to be socially cooperative, we want to be socially successful, we want to be well-respected and highly regarded), we often find ourselves trapped in situations with very demanding people who easily ask too much and leave us to suffer the social consequences of their actions.

What's important to remember is that we will have to face these consequences regardless of how we choose to respond to the demands being made. A quick, eviscerating "No!" will sacrifice a great deal of our own respect within the group, but will spare everyone else's having to endure prolonged social conflict. Excessive indulgence will not only prolong the group's suffering, but will also expose us to personal social and mental health risks. A moderate approach is our obvious tendency, but this really just constitutes "splitting the difference" rather than arriving at a true "balance" based on behavioral efficacy.

The reason demanding people always win, then, is because they are in control of the whole problem. It is they who initiate group conflict while the rest of us act to maintain order. It is they who escalate conflict while the rest of us act to mitigate it. There is simply no way we ourselves can solve the problem, because it is not our problem. We are neither the aggressors, nor the escalators, nor the ones making demands in the first place.

The key point is this: No matter how much a demanding person will use social cues and our innate sense of cooperation to manipulate us into meeting their demands, the problem is not really a social one. That demanding people are so demanding is their own, personal problem. Nothing we do will change that. There is no right answer because there is nothing for us to do. The problem is in their minds, their psychology. It merely appears as a social problem.

It is not a social problem, it is a personal one. There is nothing you can do to help.

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* Defining justice has always been one of the great philosophical problems. In fact, Plato wrote a whole book on the topic, and he wasn't the only one. So it is unlikely that I will be able to unravel the concept of justice here. We will have to accept that the definition of justice is a matter of further philosophical interrogation, and I leave you to it. I recommend you start with Plato's The Republic and proceed from there.

** For more on the mindset of constant crisis, see this excellent blog post from Simon Grey.