(With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson…)
The other day, while loading groceries into the car, I saw a man and a woman arguing in the parking lot. They were both very upset, and also clearly did not know each other. I don’t remember who said what, but did see the woman furiously snap photos at the man who was yelling at her, while also yelling at him. They both were headed towards the store entrance, where I was at the car. And then he said he was calling the police, and began to talk into his phone, telling whoever was at the other end that there was an emergency and he was being harassed.
They must have seen me looking at them, and somehow while yelling at each other moved closer to me. The woman asked me whether I saw what the man did, and in honesty, I said no. I asked whether they would both be better off just dropping their argument and going their own separate ways. That comment was totally unhelpful in de-escalating the situation and neither person, in the agitated state they were in, seemed open to anything that wasn’t about how bad the other person was.
I tried again to speak to the woman and observed that she must feel really bad about what happened and tried to reflect back to her the feelings she was expressing. She started talking to me about the encounter, and somehow the act of my simply listening seemed to help her calm down. Meanwhile, the man slunk into the grocery store to get away from the situation. And shortly thereafter, she also turned away and went into the store. Whether to resume yelling at the man or to continue on her original shopping mission will forever be a mystery to me.
Even though it’s been a few days since that encounter, I still find myself thinking about it. What was the reason neither person was able to rise above their anger and acknowledge the situation from the other person’s point of view? Why did the man feel the need to call the police? Could either person be able to question how their own actions escalated the situation? What was so important to each of them about being “right” and labeling the other person’s actions as “wrong”? And how important it was for each of them simply to be acknowledged for how they felt.
I wonder what strains that man and woman had been dealing with that left them both unable to brush off whatever rudeness the other had displayed and to be unable to observe the ineffectiveness of their own response. So often I read in the news of the intolerance that people express for those who may have done something viewed as wrong, and that there’s a sense that any kind of “wrong” action deserves a response of outrage. I’ve also thought about the times I’ve been trapped in my own anger, unable to step outside or even remember that there might be a smarter way of dealing with things.
I also wonder about our collective willingness to be true peacemakers in the face of conflict. How many of us are fearful of being dragged into an escalating argument? Do we have confidence in our skills to de-escalate, or to protect ourselves if the arguing parties turn on the person attempting to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict? I wasn’t worried about the latter concern, having martial arts skills and having assessed that neither of the two people in the parking lot had much ability to inflict physical harm. And having that confidence helped make sure that my own demeanor didn’t aggravate the situation. I’ve learned through my professional career the importance of trying to understand perspectives other than my own. And in my meditation practice, I’ve begun to get a better sense of my own reactivity and the “buttons” that are likely to cause me to lose perspective.
I’ve been happy about my role in de-escalating the argument between those two people, but wonder whether I could have been more skillful? I also wish that our society valued more the skills that let people be better at dealing with conflict, not just suppressing it.
I’d love to hear your perspectives on this kind of problem. How have you dealt with this kind of situation, either as a third party or as one of the protagonists? What would you have done differently in retrospect?