A Life Without Escalation
…tends to be a life of peace.
I’m not much for fighting with words or fists. I’ve tried both and I just never liked how I felt after engaging in fights. I don’t like the feeling I get from adrenaline. I don’t like the resentments that hang around for days after a fight. I don’t like the worry or the feeling I get when I’ve gone too far with my words. I don’t like living a life in fear. So I found a way to choose not to escalate when I am confronted by someone who wants to engage in a verbal argument, and I win a little peace for us every time.
When I was a boy, I had fought in school. I was teased relentlessly by the bullies. I kept to myself as much as I could, but some of them could not resist a desire to tease me out. My father taught me to fight them, so I learned to fight in school to deter the bullies, but I was never completely satisfied with the results.
As I grew older, the hormones subsided. I learned after one of my fights, that I had sent one kid to the hospital. He had been teasing me, too. In high school, I learned that I was strong enough to really hurt people, so I stopped physically fighting. I began to consider that they might be big enough to hurt me, too. I have kept that notion in the back of my mind since then.
I spent much of my adult life alone. It wasn’t until my late 30s that I finally became brave enough to figure out dating and relationships. I learned that verbal confrontation wasn’t working with me and the women I dated. I had learned long before dating that verbal confrontation doesn’t work with friends, either. I also learned that verbal confrontation never works with employers. Somehow, I just never found any situation where I could benefit from a confrontation of any kind. Confrontation has never worked for me, anywhere, anytime.
I have also made a point of avoiding people who are predisposed to conflict. I see them in rage and walk the other way. I see them shouting, screaming, demanding, and carrying on, and I decide that I can look elsewhere for friendship.
I can recall having arguments with my sisters and losing every argument. It wasn’t so much that I was wrong. It was that I could not hear well enough to keep up with them.
Even as an adult, talking with friends and relatives about politics, I never let an argument rise to the level of “goodbye”. I don’t believe in cancel culture. I have found that changing minds is not really possible. So I just plant seeds. I make subtle hints. I think of neurolinguistic programming. I’m not interested in confrontation. I’m only interested in planting seeds. What kind of seeds?
Every day, I plant the seeds of peace. Where I could have an argument, I wait. Where I could shoot back with sarcasm, I let it pass. Where I could punish, I wait and let them be. I assume that my anger is not justified and that I’m not qualified to express my anger. Just a thought. Then I err on the side of peace. I am aware that the brain can only make endorphins for so long, and then it has to do something else. I am aware of a curious thing called, “association”.
Long ago, I read a book called, “Getting The Love You Want”, by Harville Hendrix. I found the book fascinating because it was one of the first books I had read that wasn’t about understanding the other person and compartmentalizing them. There is no illusion of control of the other person presented in that book. The message was very simple. The message was just be nice to others and then people will associate that feeling of you being nice to them, with you. It’s similar to the way we associate a feeling with a familiar smell.
I got that message from a story that Hendrix tells in his book. Hendrix is a marriage and family counselor. One of the couples he saw had been married for 35 years. They came in, sat down, and proceed to hurl brickbats at each other. They argued with each other. They insulted each other. And they told Hendrix that they loved each other and that they just wanted to stop. They wanted peace.
He presented the couple with a pen and paper pad for each of them. He told them to write a list of ten things they wanted the other person to do for them, without asking for it. You know, because a hug doesn’t count if you have to ask for it. They each wrote their list and presented them to Hendricks. Then Hendricks told them to exchange their lists with each other. Then he told them to look at the list each day and to do one of those things on the list without the other person asking, and to come back in two weeks.
When the couple came back, it was like night and day. They were happier with each other. They were affectionate to each other. They weren’t perfect, but this elderly couple could change. They made a decision to be happy and to share that happiness. By doing one nice thing for each other without having to be asked to do it, they changed the response of a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala registers psychological pain and pleasure. The couple had changed the feeling associated with each other by changing their behavior. This is what I think about when I am with other people.
With my wife, with my kids, with customers, with anyone, I am mindful that I get to choose how other people feel about me by managing my behavior. I am mindful that if I get in painful arguments with people, they will associate me with that pain. I am mindful that if I punish people for slights that I perceive, they will associate me with that behavior. I am mindful that I get to choose how to behave with others and, in that respect, I have some control over how people feel about me.
With this knowledge, I can easily manage an angry customer. The customer is yelling, maybe even threatening, maybe even abusive, but I know it’s not personal. He’s the one having a bad day, not me. It’s my job to make his day a little better. So I focus on myself and what I can do for the customer.
Since I know that what the customer is saying has more to do with his disposition than mine, I can focus on me and what I’m going to do to help the customer. I can establish a command presence with the customer, and assure him that I’m going to stay with him until the present issues are resolved. In this way, I can avoid escalation with the customer and focus on the issue at hand. I’ve done this over and over, and I’m gratified every time that I do it. I turn a frown into a smile every day.
When my kids were younger, they’d have meltdowns. Rather than try to cow them into fear to stop crying, or to stop screaming and yelling, I’d just talk to them. I’m mindful of their amygdala. I’m thinking about the feelings they will associate with me. I’m mindful that their developing brains haven’t mastered the art of self-control. I’m still mindful that children are the greatest imitators in the world. If I model calm, they will calm down.
So I just talk with them through their upsets. No threats, no shame, no guilt, only solutions. While they’re crying and yelling, I just keep talking, sitting with them at their eye level, mindful that anger is extremely taxing on the body. I know that they can only do this for so long. Then the brain has to stop and do something else. It’s not forever. They are no threat to me. They can say whatever they want to say, I’m big enough to take it.
As I’m talking, I know that they hear me. They may not understand what I’m saaying, but I know that there is a part of their brain that is paying attention to me. That part of their brain notices that I’m saying something, that learns to set aside the feelings long enough to hear me. And when they hear me, they do not here me shaming them or threatening them for their anger. They wonder why I’m offering hugs. Why I’m using a soothing voice. Why I’m talking about solutions to their problems. Why I accept them exactly as they are. I do this because I’m a father. I do this to be the father I wish I had when I was a kid.
If my wife is confrontational, I do the same thing. She’s from Vietnam and they seem to think that spreading their wings, puffing up their chest and raising their voice is all that is needed to win an argument. I’m not interested in winning an argument with my wife, for I know there is no such thing as winning an argument with my wife. I have never won an argument with my wife. So I just model the behavior that I want to see. I deescalate. I let her see me deescalating our disagreement. I bring the temperature down to the point where we can talk.
If she dones’t want to talk to me, that’s on her, not me. I’ll be fine. I’ll find my own happiness, and when I do, I offer to share that with her. I recognize that when she’s confrontational, that’s evidence of a skills deficit, and it’s up to me to model the skills that I want her to have.
I have practiced deescalation for a long, long time now. I have learned to be patient with others. I have learned to forgive others. I have learned that when I practice deescalation over and over, I get better. I see the other side of any confrontation more clearly each time. With every deescalation, I’m planting the seeds of my own peace. I’m building my own serenity. I’m building a foundation of interpersonal skills that the people around me can rely upon. For they know I will just be here. The door is always open. They know that they can talk about anything with me.
Love is letting other people grow to the greatest extent possible, while doing no harm. I practice love every day. And every day, I have peace.