Compassion Amidst Road Rage?
When a driver rolled down his window to scream expletives in my face, a typical reaction might have been to scream back or feel outraged. You can probably imagine that scene – road rage! Instead, I was able to draw on my training and experience as a coach in the heat of the moment and offer compassion to my accuser.
As an executive coach, I help clients meet work and life challenges with strength and resilience. I focus on increasing their self-awareness so they can find greater fulfillment and personal/professional reward by staying true to their values, achieving their goals with peace and equanimity, and less stress. Like most people in my profession, I believe coaching can change the workplace and the world. To some, that may sound like a bunch of platitudes. But in a real-world test, these philosophies worked.
I study a variety of coaching techniques and contemplative practices. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with something called Metta, a practice of compassion for self first, extended to our loved ones, even to someone with whom we have a difficult relationship, and then out to the world. It’s a way of gladdening the heart, being in a non-judging place. Today, when I least expected it, it came in handy.
It was a beautiful morning. While we often think of road rage occurring on highways with cars zooming in and out of lanes, this episode happened on a narrow street in my neighborhood. I was attempting to park, waiting for another car to leave a spot. My turn signal was blinking and reverse lights were on. Two other cars behind me waited and allowed space for me to back up. But one fellow insisted on trying to squeeze past me in his rush to somewhere.
There we were, cars side-by-side, without an inch to spare. I lowered my window to waive that I was parking. He lowered his window and started calling me hateful names – f’ing idiot, the B-word, etc. I kept my cool and asked again if he could move back to allow me to park.
No way, he wasn’t budging. I inched forward, hoping he could pass. I was stuck at this point. As he continued to berate me, I intentionally put this Metta practice to work feeling compassion for this guy who saw me as the enemy. While it was difficult, it worked. I genuinely did not feel anger in the moment. Accosted, maybe. But angry, no.
Somehow he edged by me, continuing to shout some final nasty comments. I wondered why he suddenly had lost his urgency and now had time for further insults in every way short of getting physical. He finally passed and zoomed off.
I parked and sat in my car for a minute, taking deep breaths. By now a few folks had gathered on the sidewalk. I felt a bit embarrassed. It all seemed silly and unnecessary. I smiled at the observer on the sidewalk—was he wanting to protect me? Maybe he thought the other guy was justified? I don’t know.
As I walked away, I realized how much the experience shook me. But I held fast to my values and a sense of compassion. I hoped the man got where he needed to be safely and on time. I wondered how he was feeling—still a sense of rage? Regretful? What was it that triggered him? Could he see humor in it? Would he do it again? What could I have done differently?
I learned that taking a pause, deep breathing, remaining calm, and offering compassion kept it all in perspective. In that moment of tension, even being verbally attacked, I felt grounded and somewhat empowered by not reacting to someone else’s mood. I was inspired. When rubber met the road, this practice of Metta, offering compassion to a difficult person (in this case) made all the difference. I was able to carry on smiling, feeling balanced, and ready for the day. Ever have something like this happen to you at work or on the road of life? Next time take a deep breath, be curious about what’s going on for the other person, see what happens. Simple practices like these really can change the world.