I had a choice. I could try to intimidate the dog on my walk or tame him. The dog belongs to an old man with a gristly gray beard and a tattered dirt-stained cowboy hat. He lives in a small adobe house along a horse trail I walk every morning here in rural Mexico.
The dog usually barked at my approach. On this particular day, though, I noticed he had a slight wag in his tail. I stopped, stooped down, extended my hand and talked in a soft “come to me” tone of voice. He did! In fact the dog lay down and turned up his belly, a sign of submission. Wow! Since that morning I have a canine friend to greet me as I walk the path near the adobe house!
I could have made the other choice of acting aggressively toward the barking dog. I’m sure such an action would have guaranteed an adversarial relationship between the two of us every morning after, with him threatening to bite and me attempting defensive measures not to be bitten.
I know, there are dogs that come at you in such a way that the only way to protect yourself is to act aggressively yourself. I’ve had my share of those encounters. But in this case the soft, conciliatory approach worked wonders.
Saying goodbye to my new-found friend the other morning and continuing on my walk, I got to thinking of how our options when relating with people can also go two different ways. We can’t control the anger or frustration with which someone first approaches us, but we can control how we respond to the aggression.
I know, there are people who are bound and determined to be mad at us and stay mad at us. That’s their choice. It does take two to make for a cordial relationship. The apostle Paul was being realistic when he wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
But I’ve found that when I respond to someone’s impatience, frustration, or anger by trying not to take it personally, seeking to listen, resisting giving a rebuttal, and trying not to reflect the same attitude back, many times I can diffuse the situation. Sometimes I’ve been in the wrong, at least to some degree, and when I admit my error it’s often amazing how quickly the other person calms down and cools off.
Yes, the barking Mexican dog taught me a valuable lesson. I may have more control over an aggressively angry person than I think I have!
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)