When an election worker tried to bite off a voter’s nose last week, the news spread like wildfire. Most readers, no doubt, saw a man out of control. I saw something else as well, extreme resistance to wrong making.
Those of you who have read Bridges to Consensus, know that many of the skills presented there help us avoid or minimize wrong making. We know that, when people feel criticized, accused or the like, they resist. They may deny that they did what we accused them of. They may rationalize their actions to frame them as right, rather than wrong. Or, worst of all, they may project, that is turn the criticism back on the accuser to frame him as more wrong than they are.
When the person whose ideas or behavior we challenge is in a relatively normal state, our wrong making can still bring verbal retaliation raining down on our head. The more seriously the person takes the matter, the more upset his is about it, the more likely he is to act out his hard-wired urge to resist. As the nose-biting incident shows, when the person is already enraged and combative, his reaction to being made wrong can be physically dangerous.
In the Ohio case, Greg Flanagan was returning to his car after voting when he saw an election worker engaged in an altercation with a woman over whether she was placing signs too close to the polling place. Mr. Flanagan reported that the woman was less than 5 feet tall, while the man was large, and had become “combative.” So Flanagan stepped in to help the woman.
Consider the exact words, as reported by Flanagan:
Flanagan: “Measure the distance if you are concerned, and don’t be and ass.”
Election worker: “What did you say?”
Flanagan: “Don’t be an ass.”
That’s when the election worker went ballistic, head butted Mr. Flanagan between the eyes, then bit his nose, before fleeing the scene. The key words were, “Don’t be and ass,” not only uttered once, but repeated when the already-irate election worker asked, “What did you say?”
Flanagan told the Associated Press, “I knew what I did was right and I shouldn’t have been treated that way by another human being.” I agree with Mr. Flanagan. I applaud his efforts to step in and help the victim of a bully. The election worker was in the wrong. But when Flanagan put the worker’s nose into his wrongness, with the term “ass,” he scored a bite on his own nose in return.
How might Mr. Flanagan have assisted the woman while reducing risk to himself? Actually, his first instinct, to suggest measuring the distance, was a good one, a reasonable request. Adding, “Don’t be an ass,” was the trigger that sent things spinning out of control.
But the election worker might have already been too emotionally charged up to respond to a reasonable request such as measuring the distance. Flanagan could have further increased his chances of success with a preliminary de-escalation tactic such as, “When I heard your conversation, I felt concerned because I wanted to know that both of you are OK.”
This technique, recommended in Nonviolent Communication–A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg, probably wouldn’t immediately transform the election worker from a raging lion to a meek lamb, but it could start the process of de-escalation, and at the very least, avoid further escalation.
One could then repeat de-escalation techniques until the worker seemed ready to take in the suggestion, “Why don’t we measured the distance?” And if the worker never reached that point, the de-escalation tactics would at least buy time for the woman and her Good Samaritan to safely extricate themselves from the situation.
If avoiding wrong making could have prevented this situation from getting physical, imagine what it could do for your everyday disagreements. Practice in low stakes situations. You’ll not only enjoy more successful interactions, but you’ll also be more likely to remember your skills if you ever encounter a potentially violent situation.