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How to Respond to Bad Behavior

It can be tricky, but we can respond with grace to a negative event or attitude.

Dealing with negativity in a productive way

How about the unpleasant, frustrating or irritating moments in our lives that force us to decide how to respond? The goal would be to respond most productively in the moment, but this is not always easily accomplished. And what does responding productively mean? Achieving a positive result for us or for the person who has “caused” our frustration or irritation? Or for both?

One Friday last June, my children and I were getting onto a New York City subway during rush hour. As my then eight-year-old son and I were stepping across the gap between the platform and the train, a woman, in a great hurry and with an intense desire to get on the subway car, pushed my son. His leg slipped down into the gap. I pulled him up quickly and asked her to be careful of my son. She proceeded to yell at me for being in her way and continued to express her exasperation to others on the subway about how I had caused a problem for her. Not once did she express concern about my son’s leg. Not for a second did she express ownership of her actions. It was all about her needs and wants.

It was my role to protect my son physically, and blessedly he was okay. But it was also my job to teach him something emotionally through my response to the behaviors and attitude of the woman who pushed him. How to react productively to minimize the negative event and energy can be tricky. What if this woman was worn down by the pressures of her life? I wondered. Perhaps she’d rarely been shown respect, or suffered from an underlying fear, or had an inability to show remorse or vulnerability. For me, taking this more empathetic approach allowed me to let go of my anger toward her, relieving myself of that negative energy and giving me the opportunity to direct more comforting attention to my son. The path was not a direct one, but the mission was accomplished.

As we all do, I sometimes find myself in awe—or disbelief—at the behaviors of others, usually in public spaces or when one can behave in an unflattering way and then leave the scene. I am not exempting myself from poor decisions or poor behavior; I am only acknowledging that when I observe such actions by others, I am forced to look at myself and how I would choose to respond. Last week, I drove up alongside a woman who had pulled over to the side of the road and put her emergency flashers on. I was about to ask if she needed anything when a young man coming from the other direction honked at me and shouted out his window to get out of his way. Startling, really. He could see her flashers as well as I, but for him, it was clearly more about where he needed to be and how he thought he was being inconvenienced.

We don’t have control of the actions of others. Just our own. So, in the interest of self-preservation, humor and faith, I decided to respond productively, with wishes of God’s speed and protection for the young man and a hope that someday someone will stop to help him when he needs to pull over due to car issues. Perhaps then he will see the world is bigger than his own concerns and recognize the simplicity and power of God’s grace.

By the law of averages, this week will present other frustrating situations. I am eager to see how productively I handle them.

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