Don’t fight fire with fire

“Treat people how you want to be treated”, is drilled into us when we are young. This is easier said than done when things get a little heated or when someone rubs you the wrong way. It is our default nature as human beings to be kind and compassionate, but what happens when we come up against that rude person who cuts in front of us in a line, or that colleague who talks about us behind our backs or worse still, someone who perceives to threatens our very own safety?

During these testing times, it is far easier to slip into combative mode. To return the hostility, rather than to take a deep breath and come at the situation with warmth and a desire to understand where the other person is coming from, or what they may be going through. Coming at a hostile situation with empathy and warmth, has the power to stop a person in their tracks. This unexpected, and perhaps unnatural reaction has been scientifically proven to diffuse hostility and hate in the most precarious of situations.

This way of behaving, where instead of mirroring a person’s behaviour you attempt to do the opposite, has been termed non-complementary behaviour. The instinctual way of responding to someone who is kind, is to show kindness in return, and when someone is hostile or rude, generally we mirror this behaviour back as well.

The podcast Invisibilia highlighted three scenarios where non-complementary behaviour was used to ‘flip the script.’ One of the most remarkable stories came from a young boy who had been accused of being a terrorist from a young age in Denmark, and had reached a point where he thought “they called me a terrorist. I would give them a terrorist.” This is the most dangerous form of complementary behaviour, when we are labelling, or projecting our fears onto, others and they then become what we fear. It was through the actions of a thoughtful policeman who realised that if something was not done, many more young boys would be lost to fanaticism and started, although unknowingly, using non-complementary behaviour to bring the boys back from fanaticism. This action, which was at odds with the rest of Europe’s response, managed to save hundreds of boys and girls from being recruited to join the fight in Syria.

Just recently I travelled in Central and South America as an independent traveller. As a woman there are certain dangers we face more than men, especially when travelling, and in some of the countries I visited, the risks are heightened. I was warned by many people to reconsider visiting some places or to be weary of every person I made contact with. Admittedly, I was often concerned, but every time I was in a taxi by myself or feeling insecure, I would talk to the person that I was projecting my fears onto and every time, over and over again, I was shown a beautiful soul who was just going about their daily life. They were simply going about their routine, trying to earn a living, providing for their family and within that routine, were willing to show me kindness and respect when I showed it to them. Obviously, I took precautions and would never walk alone at night, or in areas that I had been warned against going to by locals, and I mostly travelled by day, but the overwhelmingly positive experiences I had were not down to luck. I treated people with compassion and empathy. I didn’t behave like they were trying to rip me off, attack me or were someone to be fearful of.

Before I made my mind up about what type of person I thought they were, I let them show themselves to me. I was curious and open. I made sure my behaviour and response was based on facts, rather than speculation. I am by no means suggesting that there are not people to be weary of or avoid, or that there are not times that you should stand up for yourself. What I am suggesting, however, is that when your mind is racing about what might be, take a breath and see what your gut is telling you. Is this person really someone to be weary of, or hostile to? Or, can you go against the grain, and muster up some empathy to come at the situation with a different response than the one you are instinctually programmed to have, and see what may happen as a result?

Always being in a state of empathy and compassion is difficult. But when we are able to come at an aggressive or hostile person with anything but what they are showing, we have the power to change the script.

In these times, more than ever, there are difficult conversations being had around the dinner table or at the water cooler. People we hold dear may have completely different views from us on how the world should be responding to changes in the environment, the refugees crisis, challenges to women’s rights, the economy… the list goes on. Do we want to have hostility beget hostility, or do we want to give people the benefit of a doubt? Can we choose to respond differently, give the other person a chance to calm down and see how they respond to non-complementary behaviour?

Being kind in the face of rudeness, loving in the face of hatred, isn’t easy. But who said anything worthwhile comes easy? A more loving, accepting and compassionate world is one I want to live in. So even if I have to go against my instincts to ensure this and be kind, when I would normally see red, I’m willing. Are you?

By Sherona Parkinson ♥