Ever find yourself in a confrontation that’s not your fault?
You didn’t start it — they did. You just responded in the same way anyone would in a similar situation.
You’re not to blame, right?
Not so fast. If you’re honest, you know you contributed to the problem. Even when someone else’s initial actions spur the confrontation, we often play a role in escalating the situation.
Our actions are a result of a path that looks like this:
But we’re not the only ones on a path.
As we interact with another person, we each travel a path to action with every response. So, a crucial confrontation actually looks more like this:
As we see and hear, tell ourselves a story, feel, and act, the other person starts to do the same. They see us acting and tell themselves a story about it. They feel and they act.
Let me tell you about a time that illustrates this idea in action.
What a Fight With a Waitress Teaches Us About Our Role in Confrontations
My son came home for a visit several years ago with his fiancé. One afternoon during his visit, he asked, “Dad, I’m starving! Can we go to Don Pablo’s?” It was his favourite restaurant and I naturally agreed!
My wife and his fiancé joined us and we traveled down the road to the restaurant where they knew us well. As we turned into the parking lot, I heard him say, “Alright!” I knew what he was doing — he had surveyed the parking lot and figured that since the parking lot was half-empty, we’d be seated quickly and would get chips and salsa immediately.
We walked inside and spoke to the receptionist, disappointed to find out it would be about thirty minutes until they could seat us… even though most of the restaurant was empty.
My son was frustrated.
This didn’t make sense to him, so he mumbled and grumbled the entire time we waited for our table. Eventually, the time passed and we were seated.
I looked around and I noticed a new waitress. We visited this restaurant enough that I knew most of the waiters and waitresses…and they knew us! They knew we’d eat a lot of chips and salsa, so they usually brought multiple baskets from the start. But this new waitress didn’t know us, and I could see the storm cloud on the horizon.
Here’s the point where the confrontation started. (Notice at how the waitress and my son’s overlapping paths of action unfold.)
The waitress brought a small container of salsa and a small basket of chips along with the water we ordered. In less than two minutes, we’d finished everything.
He saw the waitress approaching the table, so he reached over and pulled the empty basket, dish, and glass to edge of the table so she would see it. She saw this action, and in a nano-second, she told a story that drove a feeling and she stopped, looked at him, and said, “Listen Buck-o, you want more chips and salsa? Don’t shove the basket at me. Got it?”
As he heard that, he made assumptions that drove a feeling and he acted.
I held my breath not knowing what he’d do…but he didn’t do anything.
I was impressed. See, he’d been gone about a year and a half working with Colin Powell Volunteers for America. So, I thought to myself, “The emotional maturity in this young man is just phenomenal.”
I was wrong.
As soon as the waitress brought more chips and set his water down, he picked the cup up and chugged the entire glass right in front of her, set it back on the table, and smiled at her.
She glared at him, grabbed the cup, filled it up, and came back by the table on her way to take another order. She set the cup on the table without saying a word or stopping.
He picked it up and chugged it again. When she finished taking the other group’s order, she saw the empty glass sitting at the edge of the table.
See what happened here? They both told stories about each other that drove their behaviour. She came back and grabbed the cup. She tried another trick and dumped the ice out so she could get more water in the cup. She filled it up, set it back on the table, and moved two tables away. He chugged it again.
This type of interaction happened the rest of dinner.
How My Actions Affect Yours
The stories my son and the waitress told themselves probably weren’t true. Their actions also weren’t isolated. When we interact with other people, particularly in a confrontational situation, we need to realise the effect our actions have on others.
If you find yourself moving into (or in the midst of) a crucial confrontation, notice your own behaviour. Ask yourself:
- What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
- What story is creating these emotions?
- Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
Then, begin to tell yourself the rest of the story.
You probably don’t know the full reason for someone else’s actions.
We didn’t. When I enquired further about our experience at this restaurant, I found out that, not only was our server a new waitress, but the manager that evening had sent over half of the crew home early because it was a slow night. Then, there was suddenly an onrush of customers. She was left overwhelmed and underprepared.
In most situations, there are other possible explanations than what we initially assume. Only when we recognise that there’s likely more to the story than meets the eye can we begin to move past the confrontation into resolution.
In most confrontations, it’s not just you, and it’s not just me. WE are the reason for the conflict. Be honest about your role in the conflict — it’s the first step in finding a resolution.