After leaving a play at The Lesher Center for the Arts, my husband and I sat not so patiently in a line of cars waiting to get out of the garage. As we chatted about the play, the audience, how much to pay the babysitter, we noticed a growing commotion at the front of one of the pay gates. A man was standing outside his car, screaming and cursing non-stop at the female attendant who, smartly, remained behind a closed window in the garage office. In order to exit this garage, one has to pay at a pay station and receive a token. Using the token, one can then exit the garage. The man stood at the closed window, waving his ticket back and forth turning redder and redder. Apparently, he didn’t pre-pay and was now stuck behind the pay gate. His car sat at the front of a very, very long line of cars. A line in which my husband and I now sat. Stuck.
Much to my husband’s dismay, I got out of the car. My husband was worried about me approaching a man who had clearly lost his temper. I wasn’t. I walked up to him, smiled and asked, “did you get the ice-cream before the play?” He stopped mid-curse and looked at me, utterly surprised, “what?!” “The ice-cream.” I repeated, “you see, we’re not season ticket holders, so we don’t get the ice-cream voucher. But, it seems lots of people were giving their vouchers away.” “No,” he said with obvious irritation, “I didn’t.” I pointed to his ticket, “these things are so confusing. Some garages are pre-pay, some are paid at the gate, some tokens, others tickets. It’s really frustrating.” “Well,” he started to work himself up, “there is one (insert pretty nasty swear word here) attendant and she’s doing (insert another meaning ‘nothing’).” “You see her doing nothing and feel she should help you get out.” I stated simply. “Exactly!” he looked right at her when he said this. “You really want her to understand how wrong this is.” I again stated simply. “It’s ridiculous!” I nodded and stood as if thinking for moment. “It would probably be more impactful for you to complain Monday to the owners or managers of the garage. For now, why don’t you give me your ticket and I’ll get your token.”
He stood for moment, wavering. Then he handed me his ticket. He kept grousing at the woman who stayed safely behind the closed window. I ran to the other side of the garage, paid the machine, got his token and came back. He was still grumbling at the attendant. “You’ll have to get back in your car.” I explained, “Once I put the token in, the gate will open.” He did return to his car, slammed the door, and once the gate opened made a point of speeding off. I gave the attendant a quick wink and ran back to my own car, as now the line was starting to move again.
I wasn’t worried about approaching this man because of my training and experience in conflicted situations. Clearly, I couldn’t have been sure he wouldn’t direct his anger at me, but I have stood in enough rooms filled with tension, resentment and fear that I felt pretty confident about the outcome. Why? 1) By bringing up the ice cream, I both caught him off-guard and established the fact that he and I were patrons of the same play. 2) By sharing how frustrating I find garages, I took away a bit of his embarrassment at not having understood the technology. And most importantly, 3) by repeating back his statements, I helped him feel validated and heard. Once I did all this, I was able to help him hear logic. Had I made any suggestions before validating his statements, he would not have heard me. He was still livid, as evidence of his speeding off without thanking me, but I had helped deflate his anger enough for him to leave the situation.
What I did in that garage is very similar to the work I do in communities. By establishing commonality, deflating embarrassment and anxiety, and validating people’s feelings – I can help disparate groups begin to hear and understand each other: the first step in conflict resolution.