The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Terry Dobson’s car was mostly empty and he gazed absently out the window. When the doors open at one of the stations, the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, dirty, and very drunk.
The man swung at a woman holding a baby. She fell into the laps of an elderly couple, somehow unharmed. Terrified, people scrambled to the other end of the car while the drunk screamed and cursed. He grabbed a metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it from its stanchion.
At the time, Dobson was young and very serious about the martial art of aikido. His skill had never been tested in an actual fight, though. “Aikido,” said his teacher, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”
As Dobson watched the drunk on his train car, he realized that this was what he had been waiting for: A legitimate opportunity to put his aikido mastery into practice. Dobson stood up.
In one of my favorite stories about intervening in conflict informally, Dobson describes what happened next:
This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt. Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” He roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!” I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.
“All right! He hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. A split second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”
I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.
“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly. The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.
The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.
“I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree had done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.
As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off.
“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”
“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was. Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.
– Terry Dobson, Chicken Soup for the Soul (first edition) (affiliate link)
On offering help
I love this story not because it teaches a lesson about the proper use of skills, but because it teaches the best way to artfully and informally intervene in others’ conflicts: Without fanfare.
The old man didn’t stand up and announce he had conflict resolution skills. He didn’t explain how he could help. He just…helped.
- Led from the heart.
- Treated the drunk as an equal human, not standing in judgment of him.
- Intervened without fancy footwork, keeping his intervention very real and very normal.
- Skipped conflict resolution jargon.
- Didn’t hurry straight to problem-solving.
- Didn’t make it about himself and what he had to offer.
These are my rules of thumb, too, and probably why I like this story so much. If I stick to them, intervening informally becomes a gentle offer, an offer without expecting anything in return, and a lovely way to share something I’m good at with someone who always has the option to accept it or turn away.