I recently discovered the term “sandpaper people” and immediately fell in love with the expression. The phrase is so visual. And so true.
Sandpaper people. People who are abrasive and rub us raw. Little by little. Day after day. Slowly. Methodically. Annoyingly.
We all have sandpaper people in our lives and they come in various forms and intensity. They range from extremely grating personalities to the Chinese water torture types. Drip…drip…drip….
Oftentimes, sandpaper people are co-workers, family members, neighbors, or a client that unfortunately we need to deal with… no matter what.
Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine about her workplace sandpaper person. According to my friend, her co-worker micromanages everything and takes issue with others who are not in agreement with her decisions. Translation: she’s nosey, argumentative, a morale killer and makes meetings last a lot longer. The sandpaper person causes a lot of friction and stress in the workplace in addition to taking up people’s time.
Sandpaper people can grate on our nerves. They rough us up.
My friend shared that one of her new co-workers (not surprisingly there has been a lot of turnover in the sandpaper person’s department!) told her in confidence about his latest coping strategy: He simply observes the sandpaper’s abrasiveness in meetings and then counts how many different ways people try to avoid, redirect or move along when she is causing friction.
So how can we manage sandpaper people when their behavior can be so difficult?
An immediate and actionable way to deal with difficult people is to be keenly aware of body language. What is our body saying? What is their body saying? Making a few small adjustments in how we communicate nonverbally can make a big difference.
Keep these tips in mind when dealing with a sandpaper person:
Open body language
Keep an open torso and use trusting hands. When your hands are visible and your torso is exposed, it helps you to nonverbally build rapport and shows that you are on the same side. It nonverbally says, “We are on the same team”.
Fronting is a body language technique with the intention of facing your head, torso and toes towards the person you are speaking with. This shows the person nonverbal respect. It says “I’m present and paying attention to you.” Everyone wants to feel seen and heard and this is an easy way to achieve that goal.
Most people need about 1.5-5 feet to feel like you are not in their space. If someone is upset and you enter their personal space, you are likely to see an increase in anxiety. Be mindful of your distance, especially when they appear upset.
The same goes for touch. The safe zone for cordial touch includes the arm from the elbow down (a handshake is the least intimate touch). If you know the person well or can gauge if touch is welcome, a light touch on the forearm or elbow can convey a positive and warm connection.
If you notice the person is blocking their torso by crossing their arms in front of them or holding items in front of their body, they may feel defensive. Remember to model open body language to build trust and rapport. If possible, try getting them out of this position by handing them something, or by offering to get them some coffee or a drink to hold.
If you can pick up on the 7 universal expressions, you have the ability to read people more effectively and can better show empathy. For example, if you see them flash the fear microexpression when a comment is made, you can immediately give an explanation to help alleviate their stress.
Or if you see them flash anger, you can try to de-escalate the situation and redirect the conversation: “I know this can be frustrating. Let’s both take some time to review the procedure and connect in an hour. I know we are able to come up with an alternative solution.”
Go ahead and roll your eyes, but a big part of interacting with sandpaper people requires empathy and understanding. Ask yourself, what about the person is making them act this way? Is it related to control? Insecurity? Fear? Change? Pain—physical or mental? Also ask yourself, “Can I meet that need?” In some cases, we can.
Years ago, I experienced a sandpaper person at my child’s school. This person exhibited a big need to feel important, and it was clear that he liked to be in control and in a position of power. For years, he independently assumed the role of directing traffic and guiding kids across the street. Although he was not school staff, he would stand in the middle of the road and tell parents what to do (because people really love that, right?!). Let me also add that he asked to be called “The Captain” and would introduce himself as such. Many people found this behavior grating. But it doesn’t have to be.
By recognizing his need to feel important, I was able to give him that gift and go about my day without it bothering me. I could even throw in a “Have a great day, Captain!” and really make his day. Just the act of detaching and thinking about the person as a whole helps to create empathy.
The Dalai Lama has a wonderful quote about viewing anger and challenges as a “precious gift.” Ask yourself what lesson this is teaching and what you can learn from the person. Thinking more about the person and their situation gives us the gift that allows us to be more tolerant and empathetic.
Let it go.
The negativity and anger that is. There is an ancient buddhist saying that says when someone gives you the “gift of anger,” refuse to accept it. Politely refuse the “gift” and allow them to take it with them. Of course, this is easier said than done, but reminding ourselves that this is not our issue helps us to recognize our role in the relationship. It takes two to cause friction.
A few years ago, my husband and I had differing viewpoints on some issues related to a political candidate in our state (I’ll admit that some sandpaper people in my life are politicians). Needless to say, it caused friction. And as hard as it was, I tried my own advice knowing that friction takes two people and that sandpaper is designed to make a surface smooth.
We both started to truly listen to each other’s viewpoint, both verbally and nonverbally, and with practice our abrasive conversations miraculously began to improve. Together we were able to smooth each other’s rough edges and have a deeper understanding of the other’s perspective. Our sandpaper conversations became a lesson for each of us and ultimately led to better communication. Ironically, the rough patch led to smoothness.
Dealing with sandpaper people is a rough job but it can lead to good things. I think the Dalai Lama might be on to something. Perhaps sandpaper people can be a gift. Even if they require re-gifting at times…
This is article is written by Kristin Bock, a Certified Body Language Trainer with the Science of People. Kristin lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her awesome husband, 3 cool kids and 3 spirited chickens. She considers herself to be a communication architect and loves to teach people the foundations of body language. After 20 plus years in the disability field, she has made some wonderful friends and has a particular affinity for helping caregivers and socially awkward folks. She can be reached at: bodylanguageblueprints.com