A week or so ago I was riding in a friend’s car when another driver began tailgating us aggressively. The road was snowy, and my friend was driving carefully, though not ridiculously so. For about a block, the driver behind us stayed on our bumper; it was a fairly busy road, but it had only one lane going in each direction. After repeatedly glancing into his rearview, my friend slowed and pulled closer to the curb as we approached the next intersection. The driver behind us sped into the middle of the road and passed, spitting snow from his tires.
Now, I’ve been driving for decades, and I’ve been tailgated, cut off, flipped off, and worse. This was not the most threatening encounter I’ve had on the roads—not by a long shot. But as the other driver, and therefore the encounter, passed, my friend and I both let out a small sigh of relief.
“People are driving super angry these days,” he said.
I had noticed that as well. In fact, conflict in general seems a lot more common. Around the same time as that minor road-rage incident, I witnessed a man berating a pharmacist for not having his prescription ready. I saw a different man berating a store employee for taking too long to find his in-store pickup order (“I don’t have time for this!”). And more.
Small stuff, perhaps, compared to the conflict and suffering that many are dealing with. But as we plunge into our third year of this pandemic—with all the loss, vigilance, worrying, testing, isolating, being sick, and caring for loved ones that it involves—and as our politics continue to (somehow!) get even more antagonistic and confrontational, it just feels like there’s a lot more conflict in the air.
As I was thinking about these things, I came across this column by David Brooks, which confirmed my perceptions. And because he’s David Brooks, he had data. In spite of Americans driving 13 percent fewer miles in 2020, traffic deaths rose 7 percent, and another 18.4 percent in the first half of 2021. No doubt about it: reckless driving is spiking. So is violent crime, including murder, as well as patients being abusive toward nurses, passengers being abusive toward flight attendants, and students being abusive toward teachers. Hate crimes are going up, while our charitable donations are going down.
And a lot of this stuff is going on in front of our children. (That guy at the pharmacy had his own kids with him.) If you’re one of those teachers coping with aggressive or abusive students, you know that it’s affecting them.
I’m taking all this weary, sobering news as a reminder that kids are always watching us. There is nothing any one of us can do on our own to end the pandemic or cool the political and cultural firestorm. And we can’t control how anyone else behaves. But we can control how we react to conflict. We can model healthy anger-coping skills and conflict resolution.
As a children’s editor and author, I’ve worked on countless books that address these ideas for young readers. In their book How to Take the Grrrr Out of Anger, Elizabeth Verdick and Marjorie Lisovskis lay out “Six Steps to Solving Anger Problems.” In other words, how to resolve conflict.
- Get yourself ready for a talk. You want to be calm for this.
- Say what the problem is. Tell the other person what’s wrong—what’s bothering or hurting you—in a firm but respectful way.
- Listen to the other person. Show that you’re listening by nodding and not interrupting. When the other person is done, repeat back what you think they meant. Ask questions if you don’t understand.
- Explain how you feel. Use I-messages—phrases that focus on how you feel and do not accuse or call out the other person.
- Talk about ideas for solving the problem. Both you and the other person should contribute as many ideas for resolving your conflict as possible. Then talk about which ones might work best.
- Choose an idea to try. And set a time to check back in and see how it’s going.
While these steps are obviously described for kids—and parents and teachers should definitely share them when helping children resolve conflicts—they’re universal. The steps are equally valuable for adults, and we are powerful models for the young people in our lives when we use them to resolve conflicts with other adults. What’s more powerful than that? When we, as adults, engage in respectful conflict resolution with young people instead of pulling the old “because I said so” card.
In my book Make a Friend, Be a Friend, which is for slightly younger readers, I have a similar but simpler set of guidelines for kids who are having “tough times” with a friend:
- Stay calm. No name calling, hitting, or hiding prickly porcupines in your friend’s desk. Basically, don’t freak out.
- Communication is key. Both people get to share their side of the story. Both need to listen. Use I-messages.
- If after talking you find out that you hurt the other person’s feelings, you need to apologize. Whether you did it on purpose or not. A good apology includes a promise to try not to do it again. And if the other person apologizes, try to forgive them. (I am also a big believer in the power of apologizing to kids when appropriate instead of stubbornly holding onto our power or authority. Talk about positive modeling!)
- Do you need a break? It may be that resolution is not possible right now. One or both of the people involved might be too hurt. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to spend some time apart from the other person. This can be hard in a family, and both people have to make a promise not to talk about the sore subject and do their best to give the other person space for a few days.
Again, these ideas are written for kids, but they apply to all of us. In these pressure-packed, frayed-nerve, good-lord-what-next times, it can only be good to teach them, talk about them, and model them. It all comes down to respect and empathy—things we all deserve.
Now stay off my bumper!
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons. Say “Hey!” to Eric at heyericbraun.com.
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