This past summer I went to an outdoor concert to hear my favorite band. It was a perfect summer evening, with warm temperatures and a gentle breeze to cool us as we sat in the grandstands. There were two people near me who missed most of this great concert, however. That didn’t need to happen.
It started when a couple three rows ahead of me stood and were swaying to the music. I’m no expert in concert etiquette, but that seems like pretty normal and harmless behavior.
Apparently the guy one row ahead of me had different expectations, because he yelled at them to sit down. When they ignored him, he stepped over the row of seats in front of him and got in their face to deliver his message. Satisfied that he’d spoken his mind, he returned to his seat.
A moment later, the woman on the receiving end of his words threw a full cup of beer at him. He sat quietly for a few seconds, then again stepped over the row of seats between them and dumped his beer on her head before returning to his seat. The woman left her row, came up a few steps, and then started down my row.
I could see this ugly situation was about to get uglier.
I could see this ugly situation was about to get uglier. I stopped her before she got behind him, acknowledged that she’d been wronged (they both were), and gently encouraged her to let it go. Fortunately, she did the right thing, turned around, and went to get an usher. In the end, security removed both of them from the concert.
This story could be funny, unless of course you were the one who got soaked with beer or missed the concert. As a by-stander not personally involved in the conflict, the incident makes for a great learning opportunity.
Let’s start with what went wrong. There were lots of things on both sides:
- The man saw his rights far too broadly and expected too much. He perceived that the couple was infringing on his right to watch the concert sitting down. While others can infringe on our rights, this wasn’t one of those cases. No one promised him that everyone in front of him would sit, nor should he have expected it.
- He approached the couple aggressively. Yelling and physical provocation (if there was any) is very likely to get a strong, defensive response. He might not have been successful at getting them to sit, but he was far more likely to get what he wanted by asking kindly. He also needed to be prepared to and capable of not getting what he wanted.
- The woman who threw the beer committed battery. Throwing something unwanted at another person is violence and a criminal offense. Yes, even throwing a relatively harmless liquid fits the definition. While no one likes being yelled at or spoken to with harsh words, neither justifies violence.
- The man also committed battery by dumping his beer on her. We have the right to defend ourselves by acting with reasonable force to stop a threat. Stopping her from throwing the beer would have been defense. Dumping beer on her afterwards was simply retaliation and not justified.
- Retaliation to perceived or actual wrongs escalated the situation. I’m sure they would have called it “getting justice” or “defending their honor” but it was more. Getting in someone’s face is an escalation from getting ignored. Throwing a beer is an escalation from getting yelled at.
- No one won. They both got dowsed with beer and missed the concert. I don’t know if either were arrested for battery, but they could have been.
Retaliation is escalation.
Remember, retaliation is escalation. For those of us who want to stop escalating to violence, we certainly want to avoid retaliation.
Resisting the urge
I know first-hand we have a very strong desire to get even. How do we resist this urge to retaliate? The best defenses involve changing our thinking.
- Stop believing that retaliation is a right. This is a tough mental shift to make because it goes against what our culture says. There is a difference between self-defense and retaliation. Our laws read this way to keep us (and others!) from determining our own form of justice. We are never objective enough about our own conflicts to determine what is just. In the heat of the moment, we are never clear-headed enough, either.
- Understand that retaliation does not get us what we want. We want justice. We want to defend our honor. We want to make sure that no one does “that” to us again, whatever “that” was. But justice is served, honor is given, and protection is best achieved in ways other than by retaliating.
Justice happens to the greatest extent when we let the other person’s wrongdoing stand out with us responding in the same way or worse. Fouls in sports are a great example. If the other person fouls me, they (and their team) are penalized. If I retaliate, I either wipe out their foul or I end up with a more substantial penalty. The guy yelling at the couple would have looked more like a jerk if they had left it there. The woman throwing the beer would have looked more out of control if he had left it there.
We are more honorable when we don’t react in a tit-for-tat way. Think again about the two at the concert. Which action bestows more honor, ignoring someone who is yelling at you, or throwing a beer on them? Clearly the first.
We are more honorable when we don’t react in a tit-for-tat way.
Not retaliating is not the same as not responding. Taking time to think through possible responses helps us determine which one will lead to the best long-term outcome. Retaliation is hardly ever our best option.
Similarly, deciding to let an offense go does not make us weak. We demonstrate tremendous power with a non-response. It is as if we are saying we are too valuable and important to get sucked into such pettiness.
- Consider that retaliation does not make us feel better. We think it will, and in the short term we may feel a rush of satisfaction. In the long term, however, we still feel angry and frustrated. On the other hand, the pride and satisfaction of taking the high road and not retaliating feels better and better with time. Test this concept for yourself.
Retaliation does not make us feel better.
- Retaliation usually makes things worse. When we cross legal or relationship boundaries in the process of retaliating, we create new problems on top of the original conflict. If either of the parties had chosen to not retaliate, they could have stayed and enjoyed the concert while the other one was removed.
- Prepare yourself. A great way to prepare yourself for not retaliating if you find yourself in a similar situation is through visualization. Check out our Simulator 2 page for more about this exercise.
While it’s hard to find much that went right, there is one thing that stands out. Blocking and talking to the woman interrupted her emotional escalation. It stopped her from doing whatever she was about to do. She had time to think and respond to what happened, and not just react. As a result, she made a better choice rather than turning the situation into an all-out brawl. The interruption was key. This is the same technique you can learn on our Time-outs page.
Interruption is a key to de-escalation.
If you see a conflict escalating, speaking kindly, softly, and acknowledging the other person’s feelings will help disarm them. Admittedly, this is easier to do when you are a by-stander than when you are part of the conflict, but the same principle applies. Deescalating a situation helps prevent violence and gets the parties into a more constructive, problem-solving mindset more quickly.
Since I was sitting one row behind the guy in the grandstands, I also got soaked from head to knees with the first beer thrown. A dozen years ago, I would have been out of my seat and in that woman’s face yelling at her, if not worse. Was I wronged? Sure! Justified? Yes!
Instead, I was able to return my focus to the concert and enjoy the rest of the evening, despite being sticky from the beer. I was so glad I did not react and was ultimately able to be part of the de-escalation. It felt good to recognize the progress I’ve made over the years. I say this not to brag, but to share one more important lesson: change is possible, and it feels good when you do the work to make it happen.
You might wonder what being a Christian has to do with a near brawl at a concert. The answer is, a lot. First and foremost, our relationship with God helps us to not react. When we see God as our defender, the need to seek our own justice diminishes. We can be confident that he’ll take care of it eventually.
Knowing how much he loves us allows us to care far less about whether or not people around us are giving us the respect we deserve.
Knowing how much he loves us allows us to care far less about whether or not people around us are giving us the respect we deserve. We feel loved and respected by the creator of the universe, which is much better than trying to get it by controlling the actions of the people around us.
Taking the high road, not seeking our own justice, and being a peacemaker are all part of the guidance we get in the Bible. God gives us this coaching because he knows how we are wired (he created us) and he wants good things for us. Here are some of his teachings that come to mind:
(Jesus, when teaching about Revenge) “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. Matthew 5:38-40
A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. Proverbs 15:1
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9
Why does God tell us to do these things? Because he knows they will work for our benefit. In other words, they will bless us.