Our son was bowling for the high school varsity team and his grandma, my mom, drove over to watch. It was snowing so she called from her car and asked me to help her cross the street. She is 81 and not perfectly steady on her feet, especially on slippery streets. She held my arm and we got right up to the curb. There was a big, white pick-up, less than 10 feet away from us. He was in a line of cars that was moving slowly. The next thing I noticed was that he spun his wheels, making a loud noise. My mom jumped and shrieked a bit. He did it again and we both jumped. I do not react often to things that happen on streets, or drivers who tailgate or drive dangerously. But his actions + my response to them, triggered my fight/flight/freeze response and made me feel angry and aggressive. We crossed the street and I glared at him as meanly as I could. His window was open. He waved sheepishly. I said, “I think I am going to talk to him…” I wanted to go and punch him. My mother said “No, don’t do that.” Then she turned, looked straight at him and asked in a friendly and strong voice: “What are you doing?” He rolled his window up and looked away. I could not suppress my laughter.
What was he doing? Did his foot slip? Was he impatient and attempting to threaten the cars in front of him who were moving slowly? I’ll never know.
I loved her intervention and it was way better than anything I might have attempted. I did have the sense to listen to her and not go up to him, though it took some self-discipline. Approaching someone displaying aggressive behavior on the road may not be safe. Her directness, friendliness, tone of voice and content was brilliant.
The tone matters. The actual words matter. The directness matters.
Had she said, “What the hell are you doing?” or “OK. What are you doing?” or “WHY are you doing that?!” with any trace of irritation, her intervention would have been less amazing.
With the holidays just around the corner I bet we’ll all have the chance to witness people doing things that seem odd to us–both at work and home. If we have forgiven them enough, and done enough of our inner work, can ask—with real curiosity and no anger–“What are you doing?” We just might get some useful answers. At least we can let them know we see what they are doing and want to know more about it.
When you see something strange happening, at work or home just ask, “What are you doing?” in a friendly and strong voice like my mom.
Sometimes that little intervention is just enough to avert an interpersonal disaster or create an incredible conversation. Subtle things matter, in communication and in bowling!
Mom, Eli and Grandma