IX. Eight Ways To Deal With Non-Stoic People

Stoic wisdom for living with others

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

After making progress on the Stoic path, you can handle stress and obstacles. You can weather any storm.

Yet, many around us cannot.

This can be frustrating. In such moments, it’s tempting to share Stoic strategies or blame the other person. Often, neither tactic works.

Here are 8 simple techniques that do. By applying any of them, you will make better decisions and judgments when you’re dealing with others’ Non-Stoic behavior.

1️⃣ Remember, you’ve made mistakes before

Pause and remember that you’re not immune to overreacting. You’ve made mistakes before. You will make them again.

When you are offended at the faults and bad behaviors of others, ask yourself when you’ve acted like they are now—when you behaved as if money, or pleasure, or reputation were good in themselves. Your anger can be controlled if you remind yourself as well that these false beliefs about the good required them to act as they did.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.30

2️⃣ People do wrong out of ignorance

Do not assume ill intent.

When someone overreacts to a negative event they simply don’t have the correct views about the world. They are ignorant. They do not know any better, that is all.

When someone acts poorly towards you, or speaks badly of you, remember that they act that way and speak that way because they believe it is appropriate to do so. Be gentle with the person that reviles you. Remind yourself on each occasion, “It seemed so to them.”

Epictetus, Handbook 42

3️⃣ Commiserate

This one is surprising.

You may not want to commiserate. If someone is upset at something out of their control – doesn’t sympathizing enable bad behavior? It is true, in this situation, the other person is not being rational. They should focus on what is up to them. Nonetheless, Epictetus encouraged commiseration:

When you see any one weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself,- for another man might not be hurt by it, – but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.

Epictetus, Handbook 16

An excellent friend, partner, or parent often commiserates. Why? Because the extremely passionate aren’t persuadable to rational argument. Your role is to treat them well in this situation, not persuade them to change their reaction.

4️⃣ Set expectations appropriately

The people who surround us are not Stoic. What were you expecting? You’re in the grips of delusional optimism if you expect people around you to always act in a calm and tranquil manner.

Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself: “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.42

Set your expectations correctly. If you accurately predict others' behavior, then you will find yourself in fewer frustrating situations.

5️⃣ Focus on what you can control – not the other person

According to the Stoics, what matters is virtue. How other people act is not up to you. You can influence their behavior – and perhaps you should. But what ultimately matters are your decisions and judgments alone.

Your job is to be excellent and do what a great person would do in your situation. Pause, describe the situation, and turn your focus to what you value.

6️⃣ Allow natural responses

Seneca wrote that we may weep, but must not wail. Let people around you cry. We often involuntarily respond to trials with discomfort, frustration, and sadness. You don’t need to judge others (or yourself) for immediately responding to situations poorly.

After the initial reaction is over, help ground the other person by your calm example, or perhaps, if it’s appropriate, try technique #3️⃣.

7️⃣ Perform your role with excellence

Come back to your relationship with the other person. What is your role? Different roles demand different actions. How you should respond to a tantruming child is different from how you should respond to a tantruming adult. If you’re a parent, ask what an excellent parent would do. If you’re dealing with a friend, ask what a good friend would do. Then act.

If you can, set people straight, and if you can’t, at least repair the damage done. And, if you realize you can’t do either, remind yourself that, even in those cases, blaming others serves no purpose, and that nothing should be done without a purpose.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.17

8️⃣ Seek sagehood

The ancient Stoics used to say that no wrong was worse than another. Whenever you think that one wrong is worse than another, there’s a risk that you’ve lost sight of the goal.

The goal is to be like the sage. It doesn’t matter whether stealing $10k is better than stealing $100k. The sage doesn’t steal.

Just one of these techniques can make all the difference in a high-stakes situation.

Let me know which strategies you find the most useful from the list – and if there is anything else we should have included.

🎯 Action

Choose one of these techniques above. Apply it to one of your interactions today.

🔗 Links

🎧️ Michael and I discuss how to deal with non-Stoics in the most recent episode Stoa Conversations. This is the episode that produced the eight strategies listed above.

📓 The Stoic Mom interviews Brittany Polat. Here’s some of her thoughts on changing others’ behavior:

Epictetus says: “Now although the fruit of even a fig tree is not brought to perfection all at once and in a single hour, would you still seek to secure the fruit of a person’s mind in so short a while and so easily?”

To me this is an elegant reminder that changing habits (in ourselves or in our children) is a long, slow process—the process of a lifetime, really. We need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves and anyone else whose character we are trying to influence.

Brittany Polat

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