I was at my older son’s basketball game in January, and the opposing coach was getting on his players when they made mistakes. The words themselves weren’t bad — it was the tone and the grimaces. Hitting the padded wall a couple of times didn’t help. It was too much for a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds, and the spectators in our corner of the sideline were getting uncomfortable and wondering, Shouldn’t somebody say something?
I wanted to, but I don’t love confrontation. I fear I might get yelled at, punched, mocked, or shunned, so yeah, I tend to shy away. I also didn’t want the headache, because I knew the guy; he’s far from a bad person. Saying something would’ve made things awkward, and whenever that happens, you’re guaranteed to start running into the person regularly and it will definitely start the next day.
And I knew something else. If I brought up my concern post-game, it would have been a three-word question, the first two being “What the . . . ” — maybe you can guess the last one. It would not have made anything better.
At least I knew that. Hooray for me and my intestinal fortitude.
The next day when I was cooler, I figured out that what I should have done was calmly say, “Everything OK? Because you didn’t seem like yourself out there.” That would have shown caring and been better, right? Right?
Marginally so, according to Chandra Banks, an independent consultant who was a conflict mediator for the Cambridge Public Schools for 16 years. But it still would have had the hint of judgment, she says, which is rarely greeted with, “Please, go on.”
Here’s the challenge: We’re always going to have beefs with our friends, relatives, and neighbors. Some are big, some small. Most small. But we want to do something because they all feel sooooo important. Here’s the problem: We have no clue what to do.
Reaching a mutual agreement has never gotten top billing. There are like zero mediation teams that fill the stands on a Friday night. Yay. Another tie.
No, what we know and love is competition and when it’s a conflict, our mind-set is “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I’m not stopping until you agree with me.” There are no in-betweens or almosts. As Banks says, “Do you go to the Olympics to sort of win?”
But a lot of life exists in the gray areas, meaning we need to work things out, and a successful confrontation involves listening, curiosity, and patience. And in the end, it means letting go of the gripe, which means you can’t keep bringing it up years later — and really, there’s not a ton of fun, or success, in that approach. There’s just frustration and resentment, never ingredients for a happy life. So, there’s gotta be a Plan B, which really should be Plan A.
The first thing, before you say anything, is to “step to the balcony,” says Daniel L. Shapiro, director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. Whether literal or figurative, you want to get out of the fray so you can ask yourself a few questions. What will happen if it doesn’t get resolved? Am I willing to make it better and maybe try something new? Will this matter in a month? Would tearing them down change my life in a good way? Ultimately, you’re trying to gauge your feelings and answer the big question: Is this really worth it?
You might say, “No.” It might cause headaches for others. It might screw up your relationship with the person, a not unimportant factor, Banks adds.
But if it is worth pursuing, know a couple of things. As obvious as the situation may seem, it’s not. “You think you know what the person is thinking. You have no idea what’s going on,” Banks says.
Number two, you need a sense of what your goal is, Shapiro says. If it’s getting the person tossed from the league, fine. If it’s trying to change behavior, cool. If it’s just expressing your feelings, cool again. After that, it’s about choosing the when and the where, so the issue is prevalent without being too hot and no one feels on display. Bottom line: On the court, after the game, in front of everybody would not have been the winning play for me.
And then come the words. There’s no script, but leading with curiosity and empathy doesn’t hurt. With Coach Angry Pants, I could have gone with something like this: “I appreciate what you do and how passionate you are with the kids. I’m passionate about them too, but I feel the yelling and banging is out of proportion. How do you feel about what I said?”
It’s direct. It tries to find common ground. It uses “I feel,” recommended by Banks over “I think,” which suggests there are facts, and is harder to come back from. And adding a question at the end turns it into a conversation.
Or it doesn’t.
There’s never a guarantee — you’re dealing with people. They might resist or blow you off, and not do it kindly, Shapiro says, for a simple reason: “You’re giving unsolicited feedback.”
It doesn’t mean you should stay quiet, because maybe the new Plan A works, and everybody walks away heard and happy, but it’s just good to realize that things could get awkward. If they do, Shapiro says, resist the urge to fight, defend, or make it go away immediately. Few, if any, people have died from awkwardness.
Did I do any of this? Nope. I let it pass and filed it away. If there’s a next time, I might give it a shot.
Steve Calechman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.