Handbags on the train?

Handbags on the train?

I was coming back from London on the train the other day when the unthinkable happened. Well, the unthinkable to British people: confrontation. A man was trying to watch something on an iPad, which had set on the tray table attached to the seat in front of him. However, on that seat was an 11-year-old boy who, while not being badly behaved, was moving about a lot, trying to get rid of his younger brother.

Just before Berkhamsted station, the man erupted and shouted at the boy to stop jumping up and down. Almost immediately, the boy’s mother and grandmother rounded on the man, yelling at him for being overly aggressive. The boy started crying. Most of the rest of the carriage shrank in their seats.

The shouting continued, the man denied being aggressive, the women shouted back. A third woman joined in, telling the mother that she in turn had been overly aggressive in shouting at the man. The argument would have continued, but the family got off at Berkhamsted. The man returned to his iPad. The carriage breathed again.

Long after I got home, I thought about the events on the train. Who was in the wrong? What would I have done in the man’s position? What would I have done if it was a child I was responsible for who was being shouted at?

Well, despite his later protestations, the man himself did shout at the boy, when he didn’t need to. It felt like he’d put up with it and put up with it till he could stand it no longer, and then blew his top. As I thought about what I would have done, I remembered one annual appraisal where my manager had commented that, in meetings, I often waited until the end of the conversation, or indeed whole meeting, to say something important. Their assessment was true. Sometimes, I would wait to see if anyone else was going to say what I wanted to say, before saying it myself. But sometimes, I would do what the man on the train did: put up with it until I could stand it no longer.

Whatever your reasoning, waiting till the last minute is rarely the best way to raise a point, solve a problem or sort out an issue.  By that time, you’re usually so worked up that you appear aggressive and unreasonable to those listening, and your reaction seems out of all proportion to the matter in hand. Or else, everyone else has already arrived at a decision and you seem obstructive and negative when you finally make your point.

What about the mother (and grandmother, who chimed in to support her outraged daughter)? Was she right to leap to the defence of her son? Well, yes, I don’t think there would be anyone who wouldn’t. But the way she did it was wrong. The person who chimed in at the end of the fight was right – she was aggressive, when a calmer, more reasoned approach would have diffused the situation much more quickly. Yelling only leads to more yelling. When confronted with anger, people rarely change their attitude or agree that they were in the wrong. They’re much more likely to get defensive and reply with anger of their own. Had the woman reacted calmly to the man, she would probably have got an apology out of him. However, as it was, she was angry and hurt, the man was angry and hurt, and the boy was still crying.

Often we want to strike out at those who have wronged us or the ones we love. But that rarely corrects things and often makes things worse. We stew on what has happened and events grow and distort in our minds. There is no resolution. And the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, we react in the same way, maybe even more extremely, because of what has happened in the past. (Seth Godin wrote a good post about this when it happens in business.)

I know it’s easy to say all this now, much more difficult to put it into practice when you’ve little time to think. But give yourself a split second to think – how am I going to react? Will that solve things?

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