Get Ahold of Yourself When Interactions go Awry.

Couple Facing Off

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element… I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Yesterday I had a confounding discussion with a customer service rep about my car insurance.  He clearly did not think what I asked for was in his job description.  He didn’t hide his dismay.  It seemed like from that point he chose to be deliberately uncooperative.  I did not respond well to his “attitude.”   Let’s just say we ended up being tools of each other’s torture, to use Goethe’s words.

I was left feeling befuddled and embarrassed at my own behavior. The rep couldn’t have felt very good either.

The secret our brains are keeping

So, what’s going on if someone is showing some attitude unexpectedly?  The neuroscientist David Rock talks about social interactions and why they do or don’t go well.  Rock says that in social interactions our human brains automatically move to determine “threat” or “reward.”  Our brains are assessing whether our sense of status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness or fairness is being threatened.  (You can find a really good summary of Rock’s work here, from Ed Batista.)

When people respond to us in a way that confounds us and we keep the threat/reward concept in mind, we can potentially thwart the escalation.  We can slow down and cultivate some compassion with our conversation partnerand ourselves.  In the situation with the customer service rep, I’m still working on how I could have been an “instrument of inspiration” instead of spinning out with him.

Rise above it

This is clearly not easy.  When we are triggered it’s hard to slow the rising momentum.  When at least one of us strives to treat people as they ought to be (Goethe again), we can indeed help them demonstrate their best selves.  We help ourselves do this too, in addition to creating much more rewarding and effective interactions.

How do you work with yourself to consistently “treat people as they ought to be?”

Image: Microsoft Clipart

Mary C Schaefer
As a coach, trainer and consultant, Mary Schaefer's expertise is in helping managers and employees conquer their dread about difficult conversations, to go into them feeling equipped and confident. Personally and professionally, Mary's mission is to create work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. Mary is a former HR manager, holds a Master's degree in HR and is certified as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR). She is co-author of the book, "The Character-Based Leader." You can follow Mary on Twitter (@MarySchaefer) or join her email list at
Mary C Schaefer


Speaker/Coach/Trainer/Author, specializing in #EmpoweredManager(s) and #HumansAtWork. Fierce Idealist/Farmer's Daughter
Thx Paul! @paul_larue - 1 hour ago
Mary C Schaefer
Mary C Schaefer
Mary C Schaefer

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