What brings the best out in people and what to do if their best doesn’t come to pass

Oh, the tender month of December!

As the days are getting shorter and gloomier, it’s understandable that fear or anxiety gets that bit more pronounced in human mind.

Have you felt more edgy or overwhelmed at times this month?

Religions and cultural traditions have wisely developed festivals to help people weather the most vulnerable time of the year together.

Except that coming together comes with its own challenges…


Shall we investigate into what makes the experience of togetherness more doable?

Is it even possible?

I’m guessing that for some of you the idea of making some painful interactions better may seem, well, naive.

To even hear a mention of “better” about them might register with you as painful or annoying.

If that’s so for you, I bow my head to you in acknowledgement of the depths of pain you must have been through to feel this way.

And I acknowledge the spark of life in you that has survived that and is here reading.

Despite everything.

I also know that for a growing number of people, directing a difficult encounter to a better place is something they HAVE experienced.

If that’s you, I imagine you long to bring more of that alchemy into your difficult encounters.

I know I long to keep growing in that skill.

Because human interaction IS a skill.

Yes, togetherness that works for ALL who are there is still a very rare skill in this world.

Pain and frustration with people are so common that it may easily seem “that’s just the way it is”.

Especially with some people.

But for every person who finds someone “impossible”, there’s someone else who finds them possible to deal with and it makes me wonder.

It makes me wonder about the dance of THAT.

We dance and trip up, both.

Here is a thing I’ve come to see about humans despite literally decades of deep disappointment in them.

In us! Sorry, the old habit of feeling like an alien got the better of me there for a moment 🙂

When we are connected to a sense of peace/safety inside, we are easily able and love to be caring.

But when we’re feeling insecure, we compensate for it with all the “crazy” behaviours that stimulate pain and make a difficult situation worse.

The “badder” the behaviour, the bigger the insecurity inside even or perhaps especially with those who seem overbearing and super confident.

Just to remember that would help us be less afraid of each other and invite more compassion into painful moments.

But guess what.

When we’re with somebody who’s “behaving badly”, our insecurity goes up too. We forget that it’s a sign they are deeply scared and get intimidated by what they say instead.

We start defending ourselves and it goes downhill from there.

So how do you stop an interaction from getting worse?

What eases an intense interaction is somebody, anybody, “smuggling in” some calmer, gentler energy into the situation.

Any which way.

Anything at all can work as long as it introduces a pause from intensity and directs attention onto something that the particular person will experience as more doable and therefore safer to engage with. 

Anything that would help you and the other person exhale and lower overstimulation.

A kind word, slightly off topic will do.

A cup of tea works miracles too (a mystery understood in England and Japan 🙂

A longer loo break or fresh air can break the bad spell.

Use whatever you’ve got within your reach to pause scary words or thoughts from getting acted out.

How it works

When a tense person exhales a bit, they can afford to be less defensive in a situation.

When they’re less defensive, they regain access to better quality of thinking.

Where there’s less fear, it’s possible to be together constructively and do what needs doing, etc.

Ten years ago, when I was viewing a studio flat to rent, I was so anxious about it that I was giving the third degree to my potential landlord.

I hadn’t noticed what I was doing or that the man responded with prickliness and suddenly had “other people to see”.

Luckily, the landlord’s partner and a friend I brought with me spotted the downward spiral and they both stepped in to divert the conversation onto simpler, safer-feeling things.

I remember being surprised when they suddenly started talking about something else but I was strangely relieved that the man became more cooperative.

He remained helpful for the duration of my tenancy.

Had I continued to act defensively, I wouldn’t have had a lovely home five minutes from the sandy beach in Bournemouth.

The wisdom within it

Easing insecure thoughts is the key to successful interaction.

It happens in mediation.

It is how the martial art called Aikido transforms attack into benign continuation.

The very same approach has enabled me – a sensitive “alien” – to live in a mini-community for sixteen months now.

And it’s what created a vital breakthrough in the recent climate change negotiations in Paris.

What to do when it “doesn’t work”

Undeniably, it takes skill or a stretch to respond to challenging behaviour in this way.

Crucially, you CANNOT do it unless you genuinely are in the calm-enough state yourself so please be especially gentle when it “doesn’t work”.

Take care especially not to “meditate” on how bad the other person is as that will worsen YOUR state.

If you’re struggling with scary thoughts, your stressful thoughts become the insecure other and you need to distract them from what they are analysing.

You need to apply the principle of easing insecurity to yourself.

Take yourself for a walk.

Make yourself a cup of tea and drink it r-e-a-l-l-y slowly.

Feel what you feel but don’t meditate on your thoughts about it.

Why this is different than avoidance

In case your western, striving mind is anxious that I’m suggesting avoiding issues, consider this.

To defend a cause in a way that makes matters worse IS worth avoiding.

To create a better quality of thinking before doing something that needs doing is worth a time delay.

“There is no time” is an insecure thought, not an objective reality.

For example.

Five years ago, the UN climate change talks failed to secure a minimum positive outcome in Copehagen.

The activists working to address climate degradation were (understandably) anxious about the state of the planet but it didn’t help to push for outcomes FROM the sense of urgency.

It didn’t work to insist on things that “should be done”. The negotiations collapsed without progress.

But some participants must have used the pain of that failure to learn.

Someone somewhere must have grew wiser than pushing from insecurity.

When negotiators came together this year, they managed to refrain from pushing for “shoulds” and they invited willing contributions from those who were there.

The sum of willing contributions surpassed what the insecure action was pushing for five years ago.

Pausing “shoulds” is not avoidance. It’s wisdom.

When things get too intense with someone, how could you ease the moment with something much much much simpler?