It was a rainy afternoon and I was walking home after a long day of life admin which had left me with no tangible results. I was feeling frustrated and despondent about what to do next to establish my new life in my new city and country. Italian bureaucracy is complex, to put it politely.
As I turned a corner on a busy road, a man was walking towards me, staring at the pavement. One of us would have to move but I couldn’t work out whether he would or I would have to. As I moved to the right, he shouted, “get out the way!” I remained quiet and walked on, feeling a strange sting of rejection and anger.
I also felt irritated that I didn’t respond to him. I started to think about all of the smart, equally aggressive or downright rude ways I could have addressed his response but then I wondered what this would have achieved.
This blog post is inspired by a friend of mine who sent me the youtube clip above, asking whether you should love those who are not showing you any. I think I did the most loving and kind thing possible to myself and the man on the street. Sometimes, you have to protect yourself from verbal violence because this type of conflict is destructive. I wasn’t particularly thinking of him, but in hindsight, giving any kind of answer to him would probably have enraged him even more and who knows what had made him that angry in the first place.
We all have emotional baggage and we all misdirect it. This man probably had a bad day too but chose to express it unskilfully.
A common view of conflict is that you have to use the same approach as the other person in order to resolve it. If somebody is rude and aggressive, you respond in the same way. This is more likely to result in dominating the other person rather than resolving the conflict and the two are very different outcomes.
If you truly want to resolve a conflict by ensuring that both you and the other person are satisfied with a mutual agreement and that the conflict no longer makes you emotional, fighting fire with fire doesn’t always work.
Here are some tips to help you to respond differently and they are particularly useful when the person you are in conflict with is being rude, aggressive, unkind or abusive.
Think about yourself first. Your mental health, physical safety and emotional well-being should always be your primary concern. If you think confrontation may lead to violence or abuse, do not do it. Instead, get some distance and think about discussing your concerns with a trusted friend or somebody able to support you.
Ask yourself what you hope to achieve. I thought of the ways I could have responded to the man but really, all I wanted to do was assert my ego. I didn’t want to be seen as weak. On reflection, I know that being silent is sometimes an effective way to extinguish conflict before it even starts, especially when there is no benefit in responding.
Consider the possibility that you can respond with kindness. Even in the face of aggression, you can take a step back and choose not to reciprocate with anger which will only make matters worse. This is a skill that needs to be practised (currently, I’m practicing with Italian public administration employees) and it’s easier said than done. It is, however, very hard to stay angry at somebody who speaks politely, calmly and with respect. This might help the other person to soften their approach, especially if you tell them how it is making you feel. You will also feel much more empowered by your self-control. Remember, these are all characteristics of assertive communication and should not be mistaken for weakness.
Give yourself some empathy. The first step is being aware of your emotional responses, realising that your unskilful actions cause you and others to suffer and resolving instead to take a more friendly approach to other people. This starts with how you treat yourself and a real understanding of what you need and what you want. Having in place effective boundaries will help you on this path.
You can be kind to those who are not kind to you. That does not mean that you allow others to treat you badly. What it does mean is that you choose to treat others as you would like to be treated. That might involve taking into account that the other person might just be dealing with some challenging problems. In some scenarios, it could mean that you need to give them some space to calm down or it could require a bit more of an assertive way of confronting them. It all depends on context and adopting an intention not to cause harm.
As always, I’d love to read your view and comments!