We all face the challenge of dealing with difficult people at work — a tyrannical boss, a nit-picking supervisor, a competitive co-worker, or someone who refuses to cooperate with us. These individuals may just irritate us or they may cause genuine pain, frustration, and suffering. Our usual responses to them are to leave them alone or try to get even by fighting back. The spiritual approach is to see these people as teachers who have been sent into our lives to help us refine our character, open our hearts, and become more empathetic and compassionate.

The 1999 movie Pushing Tin is about a high-energy and quick-witted air traffic controller who "pushes tin" at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Center (TRACON). In this high-pressure workplace, he is the best in the business. That is until Russell Bell is hired: this half Indian hotshot from out West is surrounded by an aura of mystery and is unflappable on the job. He pushes all of Nick's buttons and soon the two are at each other's throats.

This movie presents viewers with an opportunity to take a hard look at the consequences of letting a difficult person get under our skin at work. It also opens the door for discussions of stress on the job, thinking fast, the need for another rhythm beside speed, and learning from interpersonal conflicts. For a review of the movie and a plot synopsis, click here. The film runs 124 minutes and is rated R for language and one sexual scene.

John Cuzack as Nick

1. Be Fast or Be Last

"The attraction to speed is only partly the exhilaration of acceleration; it has much to do with competition, with overtaking. One California management consultant, an expert on time-based competition, says 'Be Fast or Be Last.' The thrill is not going fast, but in going faster than the rest. This excitement is not recognized in all societies: to the Kabyle people in Algeria, and many others, speed is considered both indecorous and demonically over-competitive," Jay Griffiths writes in A Sideways Look at Time.

  • What is your initial response to the high level of pressure at TRACON? What ways do the air traffic controllers use to deal with the stress? How would you describe the competition between Nick and Russell?
  • On a scale of one to five, how would you rate the stress level of your job? Is there time-based competition among your co-workers? How do you respond to it? Are you or have you ever been a speed freak in love with the exhilaration of acceleration? In general, how do you respond to the pressures of our high-speed society? Talk a bit about the spiritual alternatives to a speed-based culture.

2. Fast Thinkers

"Because successful thinking is seen as fast thinking, it has come to be highly prized and rewarded in society. Slow thinkers are seen as nitwits, too dumb and slow to keep 'up to speed.' Fast thinkers are 'quick-wits,' who quickly and efficiently solve problems or figure out a fast way to avoid dealing with them," Paul Pearsall writes in Toxic Success.

  • What are some pitfalls of fast thinking? How do Nick and Russell cope with them?
  • Are you a fast-thinker or not? How has this factored into your choice of a career and your performance of your job? Carl Honore in his book In Praise of Slowness discusses the global movement to decelerate the intense pace of our lives. The slow-is-beautiful movement is gaining momentum by putting the accent on the benefits of meditation, silence, and such activities as knitting and gardening. Talk about your feelings about this alternative to our fast-paced culture.

Air Traffic Controllers

3. Fear and Self-Centered Emotion

Stephen Batchelor in Living With the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil says: "Fear is the longing not to be hurt; the craving not to suffer misfortune; the yearning not to be contingent. It is the fundamental aversive reaction to the threats with which life confronts us. As well as being an emotion in its own right, fear pervades all self-centered emotion. Whether I am consumed by hatred or riddled with doubts, in both cases I am afraid. I want to avoid the pain inflicted by an enemy's barbed remarks as much as I do the anguish of my own uncertainty."

  • What is it about Russell that so irritates and threatens Nick? Pick one scene in the film that best characterizes Nick's fear. Share your response to the scene where one of their co-workers tries to return to the job after taking a leave of absence to deal with his fears.
  • Fear is a very destructive emotion, and it can present itself at work in many guises. What forms has it taken in your job? Examine your fears and try to discern any self-destructive patterns beneath them. What spiritual practices have you used to combat your fears?

4. Difficult People Are the Faculty in the School of Life

In Thank You For Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People, Mark I Rosen writes, "In the school of life, difficult people are the faculty; they teach us our most important spiritual lessons, the lessons that we would be most unlikely to learn on our own."

  • What is the lesson that Nick has to learn from Russell that he would be unlikely to learn on his own?
  • Who is the most memorable difficult person you have had to deal with at work? What was his/her lesson for you?

5. Conflict Situations in Your Own Soul

In his book on dealing with difficult people, Mark I. Rosen quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber: "A person should realize that conflict situations between oneself and others are nothing but the effects of conflict situations in one's own soul."

  • Once Nick breaks the unwritten rule at work, what problems overtake him that he has been unwilling to deal with before?
  • Identify a conflict with someone that helped you see something in your own soul that needed to be worked on. What spiritual practices have you found to be valuable tools for such inner work?

6. Forgiveness Means Freedom

In Beyond Words: Daily Readings from the ABC's of Faith, Frederick Buechner writes: "When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other's presence."

  • Why does Nick decide to locate Russell after things go bad at work and in his marriage?
  • Talk about your experiences with forgiveness at work. How did you happen to choose this spiritual approach over the more common strategy of venting your anger or getting even with an enemy?

Billy Bob Thornton as Russell and John Cusack as Nick

7. Letting Go

"If you let go a little you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be free," Achaan Chah has written in The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace by Jack Kornfield.

  • What does Nick learn about himself on his trip West? What is the purpose of the rituals Russell devises?
  • How much have you learned to let go in your life and especially at work? Imagine situations where letting go would make you truly free.

This guide is one in a series of more than 200 Values & Visions Guides written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Text copyright 2004 by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. This guide is posted as a service to visitors to www.SpiritualityandPractice.com. It may not be photocopied, reprinted, or distributed electronically without permission from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. For this permission and for a list of other guides in the Values & Visions series and ordering information, email your name and mailing address to: brussat@spiritualrx.com.