“S/he doesn’t suffer fools gladly…” I heard this phrase five times last week about five different people in five organisations. What does it actually mean? If you work with somebody like this, what can you do?
The Traits of Not Suffering Fools Gladly
A few commonalities I’ve seen across people who “don’t suffer fools gladly”:
- Above-average intelligence. These people think more quickly than others and get to the perceived end-point of an argument faster.
- A hurry-up behavioural driver. Along with being a fast thinker, people who don’t suffer fools gladly are hard-wired to hurry up. Words may be as rapid as a machine gun, or tension is seen in the body such as foot wagging, pen clicking, repeated checking of the watch, or their gaze may shift rapidly.
- A propensity to critique/evaluate/problem-solve. They tend to reach for evaluation before knowing all the facts or knowing others’ concerns or thoughts. After all, they are quick and intelligent so they are more inclined to rely on their own intelligence than that of others.
- A streak of lower self-confidence. Alongside low self-confidence comes the constant drive to prove themselves to themselves. If validation cannot be gained from others (and it cannot because others are not given the opportunity to validate), then the person who does not suffer fools gladly must provide their own validation. But that is a fairly lonely position to be in.
If this is you, you are highly likely to be limiting your career prospects. It is an interpersonal weak spot that, in most environments, undermines promotion to senior leadership levels. Read on to rethink how you can shed this disposition.
If you work with someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, read on for some defense tactics!
Overcoming A Habit of Not Suffering Fools Gladly
Not suffering fools gladly is a problem because the “fool” is always aware of what you think. You may be very careful not to express your views of others except to friends outside the office or to family members. But if you have thought someone a fool, chances are that you have thought it when you are interacting with that person and it has definitely affected the way you are with that person. They do not need a sixth sense to know that you do not rate them. It is felt in your tone of voice, in how much time you make for the person, your facial expression (extremely wooden or extremely reactive), and in general a lack of openness to the possibility that the individual might actually have something worthwhile to say.
So how to change? Consider the four factors listed above, and which ones most pertain to you.
If you have above average intelligence, that’s a great asset. Use it wisely and graciously. You are not in school anymore. The first person with the right answer is not often rewarded in organisational life. The person who gets the best results, makes the biggest sale or solves a problem by working well with colleagues and clients, is the one rewarded. If you think faster than others, entertain yourself by also creating a framework for others to follow you. Refer to past experiences they have had, similar circumstances, or analogies. Remember–you are the architect of an idea, and you need to show the blueprints to others so the house can be built.
Hurry Up Driver
If you have a Hurry Up driver, you are probably always trying to fit one more thing in before you go to a meeting, and underestimating how much time everything will take. Each evening, choose the one thing you can do tomorrow that will make the biggest difference to your long-term goals, then do that thing first the next day. The sense of accomplishment you feel will give you a boost and enable a more reasonable approach to whatever the rest of the day throws at you.
People with a Hurry Up driver need to focus on asking more questions rather than assuming they know what others think/need/want. Focus on listening to others–both what is said and what is implied or unsaid. As a client once said to me, “It is amazing how efficient it is to really listen when a problem is first presented! Time spent upfront saves so much time in course correction later on…”
For those who don’t suffer fools gladly who are highly critical or always evaluating, bear in mind that more heads thinking about a problem are more likely to comprehensively cover all angles of the problem. The solutions list will be more diverse and therefore more robust. If you stifle the thinking of others it may seem more efficient to you, but unless others are bought into your ideas, it will not be a lasting solution. A problem shared truly is a problem halved…for the long term.
Sometimes Evaluators will listen to others only to hear agreement with their own ideas. They filter out and cut off any “sideline” thoughts. Listening fully and openly, exploring others’ thoughts mor thoroughly, and temporarily setting aside your own agenda, will get you more agreement than any insistence from you ever can.
Lastly, regarding low self-confidence, this often has little to do with a person’s actual abilities. It is not insurmountable, but for many people, overcoming low self-confidence it is a lifelong pursuit. (See this link for more blogs on confidence.)
If you don’t suffer fools gladly and you have self-doubts, take a realistic stock of your shortcomings, and at the same time aim to be less critical of your self. If you can honestly accept yourself more, then you can indeed be fully open to others’ ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Seek out ways to shore up your weaknesses by looking to others’ strengths. You may be intelligent, but someone else may have better experience, or relationships. Leverage others’ strengths often enough and in time you will feel more confident in yourself and in your ability to work through others. Some of those fools in your life just may reveal themselves to have insights and perspectives you have never contemplated.
What If You Work with the Fool Slayer?
As much as possible, focus on ways for the person to suspend their judgment. If you are the manager of this person, make a habit of privately giving feedback of when, in a meeting, the person made an assumption, or jumped to a conclusion. If someone else in your team has a whacky idea (regardless of it works) publicly praise their creativity and emphasize the importance of having all ideas on the table.
When engaged in conversation with someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, make sure to “headline” what you want to say. Rather than building up to your conclusion, start with it. For example, start with “I have an idea to…” instead of laying out all your observations, and then saying, “Therefore I believe we should…”
Another tactic to use with a fool slayer is to confirm with them how much time they have for the conversation. If they won’t give you five minutes, tell them you will talk another time when they do. You could sweeten their motivation by dropping a juicy hint on what you want to talk about. For example, “I thought you would want to know about the client’s decision on X (without saying what it is), so let’s talk when you have more time.”
Most importantly, when you do speak with the fool slayer, make sure you yourself are using exemplary active listening skills. You can learn more about active listening here.
In this era of individuals and entire nations not listening to each other and dismissing the potential for joint problem solving, making small adjustments such as these can make all the difference.
Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures