A friend of ours was recently driving in upper state New York, and following a car along the twisty turny back country roads. The car that he was following suddenly stopped in the middle of the road – no hazard lights or turn signals flashing – so he stopped behind it. He looked to see if there was a compelling reason why the driver had stopped, and didn’t see one. There wasn’t a snowplow coming, or pedestrians crossing, or anything like that. He waited a little longer, and finally pulled into the other lane to pass the stopped car.
As he passed, he glanced at the driver of the stopped car, and the woman aggressively glared at him and gave him the finger. He continued, and the woman also continued behind him, at a safe distance without any further apparent aggressiveness. It was, he said, a very odd situation.
Now I am, of course, biased. I know our friend to be a conservative and safe driver, especially when driving on unfamiliar roads with children in the back. We joked about how he’s not supposed to lean on his horn and flash his high-beams while driving, and we joked about the stereotypical rudeness of NY drivers, but the reality is that he was completely puzzled by the woman’s odd behaviour. He told us, “I wanted to just pull over in front of her, walk to her window, and say, ‘I’m really sorry – but apparently I’ve done something that really upset you. What have I done?’ ”
How often are we blind to our own behaviour and the impact that we have on others? How often are we completely puzzled by someone else’s reaction to something that we have said or done? How often are we in a contentious situation, where we feel that we are not being fully understood, and we choose to just quietly walk away? Or else fight and escalate?
Confusing situations like these happen all the time – and it can be hard to know what to do. Typically, we feel that we have two options. The first is to ignore, or give in, or adopt a passive stance, or acquiesce, or walk away. All of these are versions of “flee” – when we feel that the situation is too threatening or volatile, and we choose to disengage. The second option is to attack, or to retaliate, or to escalate, or to argue for our own position, or to make angry gestures back. All of these are versions of “fight” – when we choose to aggressively engage and up the psychological ante.
These are both instinctual reactions formed in our brain. They are natural and (occasionally) adaptive – but they can also get us into trouble. If we keep fleeing, then we can get a reputation for being someone who doesn’t really care. If we keep fighting, then we can come across as hostile. In both situations, we risk damaging important relationships, and we lose insight into the truth of the situation.
When someone reacts in a way that you find surprising, it means that they are seeing or feeling something that you are not. In other words, you are missing some information. It might even be valuable information. It might be helpful and useful information. It might be information that you’d like to know too. So how would you gain access to that information? By asking questions – open, honest, genuinely curious questions.
It’s like my driving friend said – he’d like to just go over to that woman’s car window and ask what he was doing that caused her to react so strongly. There was nothing malicious in his question. He wasn’t going to attack her. He wasn’t going to ask what her problem is. He wasn’t going to berate her for her aggressiveness. He just wanted to know – what was she seeing about what he was doing? What was he inadvertently blind to?
The next time you are taken aback by someone else’s surprising reaction, take a deep breath and choose not to go with your first impulse to flee or fight. Choose instead to engage from your conscious, mature brain and learn. What question could you ask to get at that hidden information? How can you make this conversation arrive at a mutual benefit? How can you keep the relationship positive AND move ahead together with accomplishing the task at hand?
Approach it from a place of genuine curiosity – and you will probably learn a great deal about yourself and the other person.
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What other tools and tips do you use to keep learning, even in difficult and contentious conversations? Share in the comments below.