*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on August 26th, 2012
One lesson I’ve learned in nearly four decades of being alive is that it’s never actually about the neighbor’s dog pooping in your yard. By that, I mean, there is always something deeper and more complex at play than what is visible on the surface.
I recently read a story by one of our local columnists about the growing number of neighborhood disputes and it started me on a thought process about confrontation and basic civility towards one another. Something may start out as simple as dog poop or overgrown branches crossing a property line but when a problem is not confronted immediately and respectfully, it grows and festers into something far bigger.
Eventually, we get to a place so clouded in anger and resentment because we have handled the problem poorly or the subject of our complaint didn’t respond appropriately that we can no longer even recall what we were angry about in the first place.
The same holds true in a domestic dispute. When we respond for an argument between partners, it is usually because something happened that has elevated so much so that the police need to respond. As a patrol officer on the street, I remember standing in the homes of couples and trying to sift through the incident as told by each person involved. I learned very quickly how humans have a gift for telling their story in the way that makes them look most favorable. We all do it. I also learned that a police officer cannot come into your home and solve a problem in 15 minutes that took 15 years to create. A call to 9-1-1 tells me that in most cases, the problem is far deeper than the action that resulted in the call.
When we refuse to confront the issues in our lives that cause us stress, we run the risk of the problem growing into something insurmountable. The problem lies in the confrontation. The word itself has a negative connotation and it conjures of images of finger-pointing and posturing. And yet confronting something respectfully and from a place of caring is actually the stuff that propels us to a higher level.
The people I surround myself with in life (I call them my personal Board of Directors) have earned their place because they never allow me to manipulate myself or the truth so it is favorable to me. In my personal life and my work life, I have benefited the most from those who have pointed out my weaknesses and provided suggestions for improvement. If it comes from a place of genuine concern, criticism is the best gift someone can give us because it forces us to change if we want to be better.
What if we applied that same concept to everyone with whom we cross paths? If your neighbor has his stereo blasting and it’s shaking the china in your cabinet, why not walk over and knock on the door and politely explain your plight?
I realize I just made that sound ridiculously easy when the reality is that it is far from easy. Confrontation is a terribly complicated process because we have to be concerned about how we are delivering the message just as much as how the message is being received. We all have different communication styles and we run the risk of the message being distorted based on our own interpretation. And there are some people who absolutely shut down and become defensive in the face of criticism. You won’t get very far with the likes of them.
But what if we tried it anyway? Humans inherently take the path of least resistance and it’s far easier to air your complaints to everyone else but the focus of your complaint or to call 911 and ask the police to do the confronting for you.
I’m simply suggesting that even with our differences, we start practicing basic civility and respect for one another so that we may co-exist peacefully in this life.