Peace requires Understanding.
Understanding requires creating a safe space to speak and be heard.
The reason we can’t all just get along is that this is really hard. No matter how egregious the offense, we have to be willing to put aside taking it personally, stop blaming and shaming, and instead come from a place of pure curiosity to learn what is going on with the other person. And they have to be willing to do likewise. Rare and difficult.
This actually happened for me recently though, with amazing results. I had an appointment and the fellow I was meeting didn’t show up and didn’t let me know he was not going to show up. This happens often in LA and has baffled and infuriated me for years. Even worse, Angelenos will get upset with me for being upset with them for standing me up! I’ve been called one of “those” people, who isn’t “easy-going” and “laid-back.” Where I’m from, people who don’t keep commitments are “those” people.
This time I didn’t have the energy to be upset. I was having a good day and I didn’t want to ruin it over this fellow, so I just pivoted in a new direction and went on with my day. Not getting angry left me open to wondering. What goes on in the mind of someone who behaves like this? I’m genuinely curious! So I wrote to him in a very non-attacking manner, just to ask out of curiousity what happened — why didn’t he show up or let me know he wouldn’t be showing up?
It took him a week to get back to me. A week! What a low-bred, cowardly, son of a… no, breathe, let’s just see what he has to say, we’re curious after all, we just want to understand. He and I had a really good conversation. He apologized, admitting that his behavior had been rude and put me out, and that he felt bad and wanted me to know he was sorry. You see, he hadn’t expected me to actually go to our appointed meeting when he hadn’t confirmed! That reasoning never entered my thinking, it just would not have occurred to me. I assumed that he hadn’t seen my request for a confirmation, but would still show up because we had set the date and he had not said anything to cancel it.
What a revelation! Now, while I still think Angelenos have some messed up values, at least I can understand what’s happening and plan around it. Now I can let people know that I will be confirming close to the date of a meeting. If I don’t get a response, I can let them know that I am assuming this means the meeting has been canceled and so I will not be going to the meeting point and that they should call me if they still want to meet. Armed with this cultural understanding, I can avoid being stood up in the future!
I’m really quite blown away by this new understanding. Now it makes sense why people in the past have wondered what was wrong with me when I got upset at them for not showing up — they hadn’t confirmed! Why was I expecting them to show up? And this revelation was only possible because of a very delicate safe space that the two of us created for discussion. I opened the door without attack, allowing him to risk answering my question honestly,and he was willing to take that chance at my request. I didn’t lash out in anger and he didn’t reply defensively. I followed up without judgement, just grateful for my new found understanding, and we both learned something about others and their needs.
I’ll still avoid engagements that require me to rely on an Angeleno, but at least I’m better prepared for those circumstances where that’s unavoidable, so that I can interact with them in a way that accommodates their values without violating my own. And now he knows to let a Midwesterner know in writing of a cancelled appointment!
And with that, just a little bit more peace has been brought into the world. True, this was a small thing. But perhaps if we are willing to start with small issues like this, we can reach mutual understandings that prevent escalation into violence.