A Conflict I Regret

And a four-step formula for handling sudden flashes of conflict, courtesy of “Bus Driver Dan.”

ne fall evening when my son was about 9 years old, I was riding on a bus in Washington, DC, taking him to his martial arts class. We were chatting along, talking about his day, when all of a sudden, from the row immediately behind us, I heard two men start to argue. Their voices were quiet, but filled with unexpected venom.

One of them, it seemed, had closed the window beside him. The other wanted it left open.

These men did not seem to know each other. What surprised me was how old they were. Old enough to know better.

“I’ll cut you,” one said to the other.

“I will end you, muthafucker,” the other said. Still talking so quietly that only my son and I could hear them.

At my side, my son stopped fidgeting. He was rigid, unblinking. My heart began to hammer in my chest.

When I get frightened, my first instinct is to get angry. It happens so quickly, in just a nanosecond, that the anger replaces the fear, and presto! I feel energized, in control, alive.

I turned on the men. “What is wrong with you?” I said loudly, upping the ante. “There’s a child here!” I was talking to them like they were the children, all of a sudden, as if I was their hot-tempered grandma. Nothing made sense.

They stared back at me, silent.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I heard myself say, words I’d never actually strung together before.

Then I grabbed my son’s hand, and we got off the bus. On the sidewalk outside, my son started yelling at me, for yelling at them. “You can’t just yell at people, Mom!” He was frightened, and it came out as anger.

I could relate. Still, I told him, I had to speak up. I had to stop those men. It was the right thing to do, I said. He stormed off to his martial arts studio.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to study conflict with people who know it intimately, differently than I do, and one thing I’ve learned is to never trust my first instincts in conflict.

One of those people is Dan Christensen, who has driven a public bus in Portland, Oregon, for the past 15 years. Bus Driver Dan, as he calls himself on social media, has the best advice of anyone I’ve met for dealing with sudden flashes of unexpected conflict in public.

“It evolved over time,” Dan told me, “through negative results.” After testing out many different strategies, and reading widely (especially Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg), he has learned to ask four questions of his passengers when things get crazy.

“When people are angry, they tend to talk at you, like an autocannon of words,” Dan said. But questions, asked in the right tone of voice, can interrupt hot conflict, almost like magic. “Even angry people will respond to curiosity.”

Let’s say someone is trying to break a window. Which happens.

Dan starts talking into the bus’s PA system, as he drives:

  1. “What are you doing?” he says in a calm voice, with genuine curiosity. Like the way you might say, “What kind of cheese is that on your sandwich?”

“I’m trying to break the window!” the person yells.

2. “Why are you doing that?” Dan answers, still curious. (And he doesn’t fake that curiosity, either; “I genuinely want to know. Because sometimes it is something I can solve, right now.”)

“I missed my stop!” the passenger might reply. OR: “This guy back here is a fucking asshole!”

3. “Oh, God, I’m sorry!” Dan says. “Do you know what happens if you do that?” This question should be one people don’t know the answer to. It slows them down ever so slightly.

Silence.

“Well,” Dan says, “I have to call someone, they have to come here, and then it’s out of my hands.”

4. At this point, Dan gives people a choice, which is important. Angry people are often expressing a need for control, and in this small way, he can help meet that need:

“You have a choice to make. You can keep doing that. I’m not gonna stop you. Or you can hold on and let me get you down the road to your destination. What do you want to do?”

He lets them choose, and they often choose wisely. The formula is:

Question

Question

Question

Choice

“Get ’em talking,” Dan told me, “and the oxygen will get to the brain and shut off the amygdala.”

So, I asked Dan, what should I have done that day on the bus with my son? I wasn’t the driver; I didn’t have a PA system.

Maybe just tell the truth, he said. And then ask my own question. For example:

“Hey, you guys are scaring my son. You’re scaring me. Do you need us to move?”

He suggested, in other words, that I stay with the fear. Not the anger that covers it up.

When I imagine saying this, it feels risky, vulnerable. Not to mention unsatisfying. What about the righteous indignation?

Dan started laughing. “When I gave up on being right, it made my day so much better,” he said.

My son and I got off the bus unscathed that day, luckily for us. But I don’t know what happened afterward. I worry about the driver, the other passengers, the two men. I worry about my son. And I wish I’d said so.

Journalist & NY Times bestselling author. Most recent book: HIGH CONFLICT: Why We Get Trapped & How We Get Out (Prev: SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD & UNTHINKABLE)