Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I recently had a run in with another mom while I was dropping my daughter off at dance class. She honked at me while I was walking my daughter to the dance school and motioned for me to get out of the way. I am not big on confrontations, but with my adrenalin pumping, I asked why she honked at me.
She said I was walking in the middle of the road, but I was actually walking through the spot where she wanted to park because it was the only way to the dance studio. She could have waited two seconds and I would have been out of her way. We continued this argument as we walked into the dance studio. Luckily, she went upstairs and we went downstairs, and the confrontation did not escalate.
How should I respond to a stranger’s rude and impatient behavior? Should I forgive and forget?
Faint of Heart
Allow me to start with a story. Thirty years ago, I set out on a line of research that has informed my writing throughout my career and just might shed light on your situation. When I first started studying human interactions, I was particularly curious about how people handle everyday interactions of little consequence. Were typical citizens skilled at dealing with minor social infractions (such as inappropriate honking)? When others annoyed or inconvenienced them, would they blow up? Would they clam up? Exactly how would they respond?
To observe real people in action, I asked a group of graduate students to cut in line at movie theaters. Since we were in a rather sleepy mountain community, we hypothesized people would be bothered by line cutters, but not enough to actually say anything. And we were correct. Of the fifty lines we cut, nobody said a word. Not one living soul.
We next examined what would happen if we demonstrated how to speak to a line cutter. To do so, we cut lines again, but this time, we cut in front of a research associate who was pretending to wait in line. The research associate would respond to the line cutter in one of two ways. Either he abruptly and harshly told the person to get to the end of the line or he politely said, “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for half an hour.” In both cases, our line cutter apologized and moved to the end of the line.
We then waited a few minutes and cut in front of the person who was standing just behind our research associate who spoke up. Would the subjects take their cue from the person who said something? Would they be harsh when exposed to a harsh model or polite after seeing a polite example?
Of those who observed someone behave rudely, not one said a word. Apparently, even though the abrupt technique worked—the line-cutter did go to the end of the line—the observer didn’t want to be rude and remained quiet. Of those who observed the polite confrontation (“I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware . . .”) 85 percent of the observers said the exact same thing when one of our colleagues cut in front of them.
Demonstrating a simple, polite, and apparently effective script provided observers with the motive to step up to a problem they normally would have avoided. Individuals who would normally have said nothing, once exposed to a positive example now spoke their minds.
And now to your question. Should you, a real person, confront another real (and moderately rude) person—say, the woman who honked and then proceeded to argue with you? Or should you ignore a stranger’s rude behavior?
The original fifty subjects we studied—the ones who weren’t exposed to a positive model and didn’t say a word—told us that they believed it was better to stay quiet. They figured it wasn’t worth the risk to speak their mind. Sure, the person might apologize and go to the end of the line—saving our subjects maybe thirty seconds to a minute—but what if the cutter became upset, caused a scene, or maybe even became violent? The odds of the interaction turning into a fight were low, but carried potentially disastrous consequences, whereas the likelihood of having to wait a half-minute longer was a sure thing, but of minimal impact.
So, how should you (a person skilled at crucial conversations) respond to the horn honker? You don’t know the other person, so you aren’t going to gain much if you do say something. If you’re really good at dealing with the situation, perhaps the other person will apologize. Maybe she will think twice about honking at another person and you’ll save others some grief. Then again, maybe she’ll punch you in the nose.
In either case, my recommendation is not to forgive and forget, but to do even better. Assume the best of others. The person honking at you has been moderately miffed. Maybe they have cause. Maybe they’re not upset at all but are just letting you know they’re waiting (even though the sound of a horn feels more like an assault than a gentle “Hi there!”). And besides, who knows what mood they’re in or what events may have transpired in their life that day to cause them to behave impatiently.
I suggest you let it go. Avoid the risk, dodge the debate, and duck the anguish of thinking the worst of others and working yourself into a frenzy. You won’t need to forgive and forget if you assume the best of others, move along, and enjoy peace in the moment.
Now, let me be clear. When the person you’re dealing with annoys you over and over again until you think you’ll explode, well, this is another matter. This is now a high-stakes conversation—it’s driving you nuts and it won’t go away until you say something. This is often the case with coworkers, neighbors, and family members who won’t be going away like the honking stranger. Under these circumstances, you need to hold a crucial conversation and you’ll want to bring your best crucial conversations skills into play.
But when dealing with absolute strangers, minor or even questionable infractions, and small consequences, think good thoughts, smile politely, and move along.
I know, there’s a chance that by not speaking your mind you won’t win. In fact, you might be treated slightly unfairly, justice won’t be served, the broader philosophical questions of right and wrong won’t be answered, and you may even be played the fool. All of this is true. But despite these facts, I’m holding my ground. I myself am tired of becoming angry over symbolic rather than substantive issues. I’m tired of having absolute strangers push my buttons. Instead, I’ve decided to become the master of my own ship and guide it through more peaceful waters.
But that’s just me.