About fifteen years ago I went on a college retreat, serving as the alum advisor for junior and seniors from my alma mater.
There was one senior who had been iffy, just strange, throughout the weekend. Other students said they had always expected he had been involved in some kind of drug abuse, but it had never been confirmed. The final night there he began drinking heavily, which is clearly against policy since a) it was a school event and b) he was underage. The resident advisor told him he needed to stop drinking and go sleep it off. The student, who was clearly not in his right mind, walked over to the trunk of his car and pulled out — wait for it– a machete.
That’s right, in front of me, a student pulled out a machete. I saw him hide the machete behind his back and begin to walk toward the resident advisor who had just scolded him.
I was the only one who saw it.
My mind kept telling me to move, scream, shout, warn everyone. But I did nothing. The situation was so foreign to me that I froze while the other part of my brain kept saying, “You are not processing this correctly. This can’t be real. You must be misunderstanding.” I froze, rooted to the spot, watching the impending attack.
One mousy girl saw the advancing student and yelled at him to stop. A tough ROTC soldier guy ran over and pushed him back. The resident advisor was safe.
I have often thought about this moment when I see scary situations on tv, where the most unlikely hero jumps in and saves the day. I know now how very unlikely that is.
The reality is that most of us don’t know how we will respond in conflict. The peacemaker freezes. The mousy girl gives orders.
In a recent mediation one of my clients began viciously verbally attacking her coworker, drudging up horrible sins of his past. I asked, “What does this have to do with now?” She said, “I am showing you what type of a character he has.”
I remembered the example of how I had responded in extreme conflict and pulled her into a caucus. “How we act in our everyday lives, unfortunately, might have nothing to do with how we respond in conflict. When in conflict, we are actually mediating with an altogether different person than the person we normally associate with. We are mediating with someone who is ready to fight, flight, or freeze. A character witness or character assassination may shed light on how we will respond once the conflict is passed, e.g. if we will fulfill the terms of the mediation agreement, but it has nothing to do with how he is responding in this room. You speak of a drastic power imbalance, where he has always been cruel, unkind, and critical. What I have seen is someone who truly wants to resolve this conflict in good faith. I have seen remorse from him and a desire to reach a fair agreement. I expect that when you reflect on this tomorrow you will be surprised, instead, at how you reacted in the middle of a conflict.”
Thankfully, we had established enough rapport that she was able to hear this advice.
Also thankfully, since that retreat I have never needed to be a heroic Charlie’s Angel.