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How to Win a Fight without Throwing a Single Punch

Anybody, kid or parent, knows there are all sorts of rules—good ones—to protect kids from cars on school grounds. Rules about where you can pick up and drop off. Rules about where to park. And, above all, an iron-clad rule that you stop if you see someone of any age entering the crosswalk from the parking lot to the school’s door.

On this particular morning, school had already started, and I was arriving late to drop off the lunch bag my son had forgotten at home. As I approached the crosswalk, I saw a woman hesitating at the school side of it. I slowed, and prepared to stop. But instead of stepping into the crosswalk, she made a spasmodic gesture with her hands that confused me. I interpreted the gesture to mean, “No, go ahead, I’m just standing here, waiting for someone,” and so I slowly proceeded.

Imagine my surprise and dismay when she hollered like a banshee, leapt into the crosswalk into the wake of my passing car, and kicked my bumper as hard as she could. Guess that wasn’t what her hand signals had meant, after all.

By the time I’d parked my car, prepared to approach her, explain, and apologize, she was standing outside hers, halfway across the lot, and screaming at me. “My daughter almost got killed by someone driving recklessly like you!” she shrieked. “You always stop at the crosswalk! You always stop at the crosswalk!” And with that she slammed herself into her car.

I could have gotten defensive. I could have gotten in her face. I could have gone over and kicked her bumper.

Instead, I chose to be interested in—fascinated by—my own reaction, without getting emotionally hooked by it. And mentally noticing that my heart was pounding, that my adrenaline was surging, that my fight-or-flight response was fully engaged, gave me the distance from it I needed to observe my anger without needing to express it.

So I simply walked over to her car, knocked on the window, and, when she rolled it down—reluctantly—said, “You’re absolutely right. I should have stopped for you at the crosswalk. I apologize. And I think there was probably a better way to have handled this.”

And then I walked away.

I could hear her screaming from her car behind me, but you know what? I didn’t have control over her response, and I felt that I had spoken my own truth. I didn’t need her to understand why I hadn’t stopped in the first place. I didn’t need her to stop being mad. I didn’t need her to forgive me. I was complete with the interaction, just as it was.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where your emotions are riding high and you’re all ramped up, consider the advantages of simply observing those feelings without becoming engaged by them. Can you notice that you are angry, sad, frustrated, hurt—and not act out?

When you notice and acknowledge your emotions without getting hooked by them, it feels way better than climbing into the ring with them and going a few rounds. Bonus: it baffles bullies and other unfriendlies who were spoiling for a fight.

What if they gave a war and nobody came? What if the next time someone tried to engage you in battle, you declined to play?

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