Knowing your conflict hooks and how to handle them is like having a conflict resolution magic wand: You have portable power to turn the little conflicts into nothing and the bigger conflicts into manageable ones.
We had just moved from the Burlington, Vermont area to a small town in New Hampshire. The move had been a whirlwind, our Vermont house selling in a matter of days, far faster than we anticipated, and resulting in a new house purchased in a day, a moving van scheduled in a narrow window, and a mad rush to sift and pack a lifetime of belongings.
The day after we moved, I pulled into a local Mobil station to fill up. The light that signals a gas tank almost empty glared at me from my dashboard, something I rarely let happen. I reached for my wallet and realized I had left it in the new house’s entryway, also a rarity for me. I chalked it up to the frenzy of the move.
Fortunately, I had a Mobil Speedpass, a little plastic gizmo that attached to my keychain and allowed me to pump gas while automatically deducting the amount from my checking account. I got out and waved the little gizmo at the designated spot on the gas pump, waiting for the signal light to show me the pump recognized my Speedpass and I was good to go. The light didn’t come on. I waved the gizmo some more. No light. I ran it over the spot again, trying different angles. No light.
Fighting the urge to scream to the universe, “Can you just gimme a break, please?” I walked quickly into the gas station and up to the counter.
“Hi there. I’m having a little trouble with my Speedpass. I can’t get it to work at the pump. Can you help me?” I said.
The clerk pursed his lips in a little frown of disapproval, not unlike the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. “It was working a few minutes ago,” he said a little under his breath, shaking his head back and forth at my ineptness.
I noticed my own lips pursing in disapproval now, too. I was perfectly capable of pumping my own gas. Perfectly capable of properly waving a tiny piece of plastic at a round plastic piece on a gas pump. The days of gas station attendants pumping gas for ladies with hats and gloves had ended when my age was still in the single digits. My teeth threatened to start gnashing.
Now, you’ll recall I’m from New York. I may have lived in northern New England for my entire adult life, but New York blood still courses through my veins. Sarcasm comes naturally to me, though I’ve learned to bite my tongue and temper myself. Most of the time. It’s harder to do when I’m stressed, as I had been by this overnight relocation. In addition to a healthy relationship with sarcasm, I am also very capable of verbally dismembering people, deploying my wit and vocabulary to slice and dice. I’ve spent my adult life in northern New England practicing not doing this because it’s unkind. I don’t want to be unkind.
Upon hearing the gas station clerk’s response, Bad Tammy woke up inside my head, ready to speak. Uh oh. She wanted to say, very exaggeratedly for effect, “Ah, I see. Customer service is your strength.” She also mumbled something about People from New Hampshire, which I refused to acknowledge because I was now People from New Hampshire.
Bad Tammy opened my mouth but, thankfully, Good Tammy took over in the nick of time. Good Tammy said, “What do you mean?”
The clerk looked at me and shook his head again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “The pump’s been doing that off and on for two days but the manager doesn’t believe there’s a problem. That’s because when he looks at it, it’s working. The pump’s playing cat and mouse. I bet when we go out there now, it’ll be working. Darn thing is driving me crazy.”
Good Tammy turned and looked smugly at Bad Tammy. See, she said to Bad Tammy, you almost go us into trouble for nothing. It wasn’t about us at all. That clerk was shaking his head at his own problems and his own frustrations, not at our stupidity. Bad Tammy rolled her eyes, turned her back on us, and went back to sleep.
The Speedpass and pump worked perfectly when the clerk and I marched outside together. Instead of driving away guns blazing, I drove away smiling at my success. Instead of driving away and beating myself up for unkind behavior, I drove away feeling good that I was able to walk the talk. Instead of driving away never to be able to show my face at that Mobil station again, I drove away with a new acquaintance in my new town.
That’s the magic of knowing your hooks and how to handle them.