I was putting breakfast plates together for myself and my kids yesterday before starting the last leg of our drive home from Texas. It was one of those hotel lobby continental breakfasts, where lots of people are trying to patiently gather their items at the same time.
I walked up to the coffee table and waited behind a lady who was fixing up her coffee for a bit. After another person left, I filled up my cup next to her and reached in front of her for some sweetener. “You’re excused! Don’t you have any manners?” she blurted – catching me by surprise.
I wish I could say I walked away to return and get my coffee later. But instead, I reacted by saying, “You are rude”. And I invited the conflict to go further.
So she responded, “When you need something you say ‘excuse me’; that’s the polite thing to do. You’ve been up on me all over this room. Is that the way your mama taught you to act?”
“My mama isn’t rude!” I said, pulling out the big guns. And I went to sit down. So I guess those “your mama” fights are for real.
While replaying it in my head on the way home, I thought, “really? Why did I engage a person that was looking for a conflict? Why couldn’t I have just walked away gracefully?
I finally realized that what bothered me was I was unprepared to respond. It is one thing to go into a conversation or situation that you know will cause you to face conflict. But being surprised by conflict is even harder.
A few weeks ago I was approached by someone who accused my son of being cruel to another child. At first I listened, and took it seriously, so I questioned my son immediately. But as I began having difficulty understanding the whole story, I was fighting back some defensiveness toward this person. The details were fuzzy and it was tempting for me to deny my son’s fault altogether. I accepted responsibility as best I knew how, but left wondering if I had handled it well. Days later, when I was able to determine more of the story from my son, I found that while he was not responsible for everything that had occurred, he was clearly in the wrong. I was glad I had not been rude and defensive when I was approached unexpectedly.
The harsh reality is – handling an unexpected confrontation poorly only leads to me having regrets or questions later. When I can fight the urge to react to my defensive feelings, I can more clearly discern the situation, gain the clarification I need, and ask the right questions.
And in those rare circumstances where someone is only seeking a conflict, I can choose to walk away….and have more peace later.
I’ve been reminded as I approach the holidays that I can feel the sense of urgency to get things done, and my patience can wear thin. My hope is that right now I can be formulating my responses to the situations I’m bound to encounter in the near future.
And most importantly, I realize I need the grace to make mistakes and learn from them….and I can choose to offer grace to others too, including the rude lady.
Do you struggle with reacting well to surprise conflicts? How have you found ways to respond well? I would love to hear your thoughts and learn from you!
Photo Credit: Gustavo Devito, Creative Commons