Thursday, November 17, 2016

Apologizing, Softness and Humanity's Web

I've been trying something lately: when I regret an action, no matter how small, I try to apologize to the person who I wronged. This doesn't sound revolutionary, but given how difficult I've found it, I think I haven't done it as much as I should have. And I've found the emotional payoff to be enormous.

For example, a few weeks ago I snapped at the shuttle driver who takes me to work. I won't go into detail, but let me just say that he started it and I one-upped him, including mentioning his supervisor. During the ride, I stewed about his reaction but finally realized that I was more upset about mine. When I got out, I went around to his window and apologized--there was no need for me to speak that way. He said there was no need for me to apologize (which just shows the level of hostility we're all used to dealing with), but since then, we've been able to have pleasant interactions. I left feeling like I'd improved someone's day, instead of adding to the negativity in his world and mine.

Let me be clear that I'm not talking about apologizing for asserting my rights or taking up space. I've also learned that people (especially women like me) end up apologizing instead of saying thank you, thanks to this great illustration. As I'm teaching my children how to interact in the world, and setting limits on how they're allowed to speak to me, I'm  learning to take responsibility for my own behavior. I don't believe that it is ever justified to be mean or even use a rude voice. I'm certainly not saying that I don't still do these things, just that I'm learning to recognize when I do and apologize for it.

Apologizing for yelling at my kids is one thing. But what about if someone is physically attacking me? I would be rude. I would be mean. I would do whatever I needed to get out of the situation. And I doubt I'd apologize. However, I believe it would be better, if possible, to handle the situation calmly and respectfully. One thing that I've learned both from parenting and training in martial arts is that meeting force with force is rarely effective.

Our Grandmaster teaches us to respond to a force in the manner of a trampoline: absorbing, zero-ing out and responding with such softness that the opponent doesn't even register that he is being controlled. This is an ideal that I strive toward, although I won't sacrifice the safety of myself or my family to achieve it.

Short of the threat of physical harm, verbal exchanges offer a training ground for responding with softness. My emotional reaction might be hostile, but it is still possible to respond mindfully. Parenting provides ample opportunity for practice: it is astounding to me how simply repeating back a child's words--acknowledging that I hear what she is saying, what she wants, without saying I'll give it to her--releases the pressure of the interaction to a point where progress can be made. (For more on this, and other techniques that worked shockingly well for us, check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by
A mean response to a rude statement will only cause the instigator to build up their defenses. There is no way to teach through, or learn behind, a wall. When the hatches are battened, there is no possibility for communications.

A ten-minute interaction with the shuttle driver may not be a big thing, but the attitude that he and I both took through our day could have affected ten or more people. Their attitudes in turn would have affected the people they encountered: truly an exponential effect.

These kinds of one-on-one connections are what I believe to be humanity's most hopeful feature, so I'm striving to make my contributions as positive as possible.  I invite you to join me...

1 comment:

Paula Stokes said...

Well-written and spot on. Meeting everyone who looks or thinks or acts or votes differently from us might feel like a show of strength, but all it really does is divide us further. Kindness, empathy, understanding--these are the traits that can bring people together.