Respond, Not React

I wanted to share an interaction I had today with a stranger that reaffirmed the importance of being considerate to others and not making unnecessary assumptions. 

I was driving this morning and came up to a red light where I had wanted to make a right hand turn. The lane I wanted to turn from also happened to be a bike lane. I quickly realized, however, when I got to the stoplight in the bike lane that the right turn was actually farther ahead at the next stoplight. There wasn’t even a street on the right hand side where I was, so it looked like I was just sitting in the bike lane for no reason.

I was definitely frustrated because there was a cyclist behind me and I was totally screwing him up. It looked like I was intentionally being an jackass, even though I simply made a mistake.

The light then turned green and it was time to go. I drove forward, remaining in the bike lane because I was going to turn right just another 50 feet or so ahead.

Then the guy in the car next to me started laying on his horn, honking wildly. When we both pulled up to the next stoplight I rolled down my window and said, “Hi, do you have something to say to me?” 

He then started screaming at the top of his lungs so I could hear across the cars, “You’re in the bike lane! You’re in the bike lane!” 

I looked at him calmly and said, “I know, I made a mistake.”

He paused for a second, looking surprised by my admission of guilt, but then quickly started yelling again. “Well you shouldn’t be doing that! You should have moved over! You can’t do that. Just, Just…” Just stammering and completely flying off the handle. 

Then, recognizing there is now another car behind me waiting, he starts another rant. “You have to turn, you’re holding people up! You need to move! Go!” 

Somewhere during this interaction I was able to toss out a few words. “Why are you so mad at me? You have no idea what happened. It’s not up to you to point out my mistakes.” Proud of myself for staying calm and not yelling back; thank you, 10-day Vipassana courses

It’s not your job, nor my job nor anyone else’s job to randomly point out other’s mistakes, especially to total strangers – it’s just not. 

If someone is doing something stupid, then let them be stupid. It’s not up to you to point it out. Now if they are going to hurt somebody or if you are trying to avoid an accident, that’s something different. But this was clearly not one of those situations. 

I simply made a mistake. 

That pivots into something I think about often. You never really know what is going on is someone else’s head. You may not know what’s going on in their lives or what happened to them 10 seconds earlier. Don’t be so quick to judge.

I saw this in the workplace a lot. I’d see colleagues quickly reacting to things and getting upset. They may have been cut out of a project or their views didn’t align with the decision of another co-worker. They’d get all huffy and puffy and bent out of shape, without even having most of the details. They’d go from 0 to 10 in a split second, throwing around accusations and making assumptions.

When they’d vent to me, my advice would be to not make any immediate assumptions as they don’t have a clear picture. Hold back until you can gain some clarity. As a manager, this was one of the topics we’d recurrently discuss in team meetings. We’d routinely encourage each other to talk things through and use each other as sounding boards first before getting prematurely upset.

When another’s decision or action is perceived as going against one’s own views, an immediate reaction can be to raise the hackles and put up the boxing gloves. Pure animalistic self-defense. But as humans, we have the ability to take a pause and and not engage so quickly. We can question to get more clarity, more data, or simply decide to recognize it and let it be. Quite often things will blow over if you just hold off from reacting too quickly. Don’t react to the situation, respond to it.  

Respond, not react. I love that expression.

It doesn’t do anybody any good to get frustrated when you don’t have a solid understanding of a situation. Even if you ultimately don’t get all of the data you want, freaking out doesn’t solve anything, All of that excessive anger and frustration and tension and energy. It’s wasted. 

Just like the interaction I had this morning. That guy had no idea I was completely aware of what I had done wrong and that I was embarrassed about it. Mortified in fact, that I was sitting there in a bike lane completely blocking a cyclist with my big car like a bozo. 

He didn’t know what was going through my head. All of his yelling probably got him worked up too. I doubt it made him feel any better and he was probably in an agitated state for some time after that.

He could have simply looked at me and thought, “Dang, what an idiot she is.” Smiled to himself and moved on.

But no, he had to verbally impart his point of view. To what end? I’m unclear what reaction I could have provided that would have satisfied him. 

Learning how to let things go or simply mind you own f-ing business takes practice. I try and work on it every day and sometimes I fail miserably. My boyfriend usually gets the brunt of it when I do; I no longer freak out on total strangers.

If everyone could just take a moment to breathe deeply before responding to a frustrating situation so much wasted energy and anger in the world would be eliminated. 

It seems so simple, but it’s actually not that easy to do. Being stoic is hard. Being an asshole is often easier.