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Defusing Confrontation

It’s Indepence Day in the United States.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson has a marvelous newsletter to mark the occasion, one that reminds us to live up to our highest ideals in this country, rather than sink into our lowest manifestations of a society.

We haven’t been doing a good job of reaching the ideals of life, liberty, equality, or the pursuit of happiness lately. There’s a sliver of people who would rob the majority of all of these things so they can maintain power and often wealth. And I viscerally experienced one of their tactics for doing so this past week.

Remember meetings after the meeting before the pandemic? There’d be the official meeting, then afterwards people spontaneously break into smaller groups to discuss various aspects of the meeting or catch up on their personal lives. These mini meetings often take place in parking lots or hallways and they are a great way to build social connection and cohesion. Meetings after meetings are typically fun.

I had a meeting after a meeting this week that was not so fun.

The meeting itself was a legislative update, so those in attendance could hear from our state representatives. After the meeting, just as expected, people stopped to chat with each other in small groups and catch up. I talked to several people and most of the conversations were pleasant, with the exception of one.

A guy I didn’t know, who was introduced by someone I did know, launched into a number of difficult topics within the span of about 15 minutes, giving me very little time to process, let alone discuss with any intelligence, any one topic. It started with an incendiary statement about a politician, jumped to the awfulness of paying taxes, then it was on to Critical Race Theory being taught to kindergartners, then to how pulling down statues is erasing history.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a few minutes.

As soon as he mentioned the politician, I knew I was in dangerous waters and I tried not to engage. My hackles went up because I am not at all comfortable with conflict. By the end of the conversation, I was fuming. I had been unexpectedly placed into a defensive position and not given any time to think or respond properly by a complete stranger. No niceties to start, like “How about this weather,” or “How’s the family?”

Just naked, angry confrontation that I wasn’t seeking.

It took me several hours to come to the realization that this confrontation is the point. That people have been encouraged by politicians and pundits and the powerful to engage in this behavior in order to keep others off balance. It’s a tactic meant to allow those with less power to feel like they are winning over someone else in society, often someone who has even less power.

Let me tell you, when it comes to verbal confrontations, I do not feel powerful in the least. I imagine this guy walked away thinking he had certainly won, but what did he win?

He didn’t win me over to his position, not with my hackles raised. In fact, I was less likely to listen to his points precisely because of his confrontational nature. It was all I could do to fend off the attack. He also didn’t win by getting in the last word because here I am, writing about the situation after the fact. (Pro tip, be very careful getting into confrontations with writers. As Austin Kleon recently indicated, we use our anger as fuel for our writing. This, btw, is a much more measured piece than if I had written it directly after the confrontation, which is better for everyone.)

So, what are we supposed to do if someone comes verbally charging at us, trying to force us to respond to a confrontation they’ve started?

It will take me presence of mind to do this, but I’m considering asking a confrontational person why they are feeling the need to be confrontational. My natural reaction to confrontation is wariness, defensiveness, tenseness, and a desire to run away, so stopping to question the confrontational behavior will probably feel like I’m defusing a bomb … because in a way, I would be. I’ll have to proceed with caution and gentleness, which will not be what I’m feeling inside. My heart will be pounding in my ears as I attempt to clip the wires of anger.

Hopefully, this tactic to defuse confrontation will work for me in the future because I suspect this guy and I could have found some points of agreement if we’d been able to have a calmer discussion.

Over to you. Have you ever found yourself in a confrontation you weren’t seeking? How did you handle it? Were you able to defuse the situation? If so, how did you do it?

Thoughtful comments welcome.