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I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was 11 years old, walking back from my grandmother’s house with my mother and younger brother. We were about two blocks from home when a group of older boys began to circle us and yell profanities. To this day, I have no idea who these boys were and why we were the target of their dreadful behavior. I started to yell back at them when in a split second, my mother grabbed the back of my shirt, yanked me around and said, “Joey, what are you doing? Keep your mouth shut and keep walking!” Luckily, nothing else happened, and the boys walked away. I kept quiet but felt confused. When my mother felt we were out of danger she stopped and put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “Joey, what they said were only words and words can’t hurt you. It’s better to just ignore them.”  

About a week later, on another walk home with my mother, the boys were back, and their intensity of profanities increased. I didn’t say a word, obeying my mother’s wishes. I could feel my heart rate racing and I felt awful. The boys followed us for about a block and then turned around and went on their way.  

When we got home, I told my mother, “I listened to you and obeyed you, but now I feel worse. I should have said something.” My mother just repeated, “they are only words and words can’t hurt you.” I didn’t say anything to my mom, but the words those boys spoke that day did hurt. And that bothered me.   

I am a lot older now and, hopefully, a little wiser. There have been plenty of times in my life when I had to control my temper, remembering my mother’s advice that words are only words and cannot hurt us. And, for the most part, I have done quite well. The other day there was an incident at my shop when a customer crossed the line. And that incident brought me way back to 1966, when I was 11 years old.

It was Friday, around 9:00 am, when I arrived at my shop. I was in a great mood.  We were having the best two weeks since January of this year. Morale was also great. After the recent virus crisis, this was a long-awaited breath of fresh air. 

When I pulled into my parking lot, I could see a man flailing his arms and screaming at one of my technicians. Fired up, I stopped my car right in front of them and jumped out. I could hear the tail end of the conversation and knew exactly what had happened.  

The customer failed the annual New York State inspection and waited for the technician to take his car out of the bay to give him a verbal assault. The customer went on and on that the technician had no right to fail his car. I immediately jumped into the conversation and with a stern voice said, “Sir, stop yelling right now. I really don’t care what happened at this point, but there is no way that I am going to allow you to yell at one of my employees.” He started to yell at me and said a few profanities. I quickly turned around but stopped myself. Afterall they were only words. I personally took him back to the office to pay for the inspection and sent him on his way.

I relived the incident in my mind over and over the entire weekend, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about how I handled the situation. Should I have been more understanding of the customer’s perspective? Listened to the customer’s side of the story? To be honest, I reacted to the situation purely on instinct to protect my people, which overruled what I know is proper business protocol. I later learned that my employees did like the fact that I stood up to the bully and had their back. For that, I was pleased. 

As business professionals and leaders, we need to remain in control over our emotions. We can’t put ourselves in a position where a situation may escalate out of control. And we must always try to defuse a bad situation by calmly listening to the customer’s perspective. 

Are you wondering what I will do the next time a situation like this occurs? Will I maintain control over my emotions? Will I calmly listen to the customer’s point of view? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to answer that question. But let me ask you, what would you do? 

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