When I was a kid I lived in rural New Brunswick. We had a dog named Mike-- one of the smartest I've ever known, with one notable exception-- he had a failing for porcupines.
There are a few things you need to know about porcupines. They're not clever, nor are they fast, because they don’t need to be either. They're not beautiful, they have no social graces, they have no friends. They cause considerable damage to wooden structures. There's not much to like.
Covered from nose to tail with barbed, razor-sharp quills, they have no need for social skills. If you bother one it just curls up in a prickly ball and swats away with its spiny tail. If you get too close, you will become impaled by quills which will work their way ever deeper into your flesh.
It's easy to see why porcupines have no friends and why most wild animals give them wide berth. But Mike didn’t. His usual brilliance evaporated when he encountered one. Bravado took over. You know that’s not good.
Mike preferred the direct approach. He always won, in the sense that the foe was vanquished. Mike gave new meaning to the Pyrrhic victory. How can you not love a dog with that kind of insane courage?
Thus, every month or two I’d get home from school to find Mike whimpering on the porch, his muzzle a thick and bloody beard of quills, his mouth choked with them. The evening's work was to extract all of these things, one by one. Mike was stoic, the family not so much.
After a few weeks' convalescence, Mike would plot his revenge and the cycle continued.
But this is not just the story of Mike the Dog-- it's a parable told because you and I deal with “porcupine people” every day. You know the type.
Not everyone we encounter is interesting, engaging and happy to be with us. Many can be ornery, dull, disengaged and socially inept. Some have been elevated to the bench or positions of authority, and you have to work with them.
So, how do you deal with a “porcupine”?” In ascending order of sophistication, I think the approaches are as follows:
The most basic rule: don't be Mike the Dog. No matter how infuriated you may be, no matter how just your cause, biting the porcupine just never ends well for anyone.
In many cases you can simply ignore the beasts. They go their way, you go yours. This is the easiest route, but not always the best.
In the wild you often have to go a bit further and be pro-active, protecting wooden structures with metal, or perhaps live trapping the porcupine and taking him off to a new home. Similarly, with “porcupine people” you need to engineer protective workarounds, or figure out how to get them out of your life, or you out of theirs.
But sometimes you have no choice but to work with the porcupine-- perhaps the judge, the dissatisfied client, or the supplier of an essential commodity... the list is endless. You have no idea why the person is being so difficult. Sometimes they're just mad at the world. In any event it's beyond your power to do anything about their grievance.
With such people you need to call on every ounce of patience and grace you can muster, maintain your good humour and be careful with your words. Such encounters are difficult, often frustrating, but each one gives an opportunity to become a better person and a better communicator.
Finally, in some circumstances, you can actually befriend a porcupine. Keep in mind that the porcupine is not evil, he just has no social skills. But, if you help him overcome his fears, show him some respect, make it clear that you are happy to co-exist and be friendly, and if you are patient, you may find in time that beneath all those quills is a gentle soul who will make you an exception to his need for solitude. It is even said that you can pet a porcupine as long as you remember to pet it with the grain!
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.