Connecting with Disrespectful People: The Gates/Crowley Incident

The incident with Professor Gates and Policeman Crowley (about which the President said the police handled the arrest of a Harvard professor “stupidly”) raised a lot of good discussion about racism and respect. But I thought one particular piece was missing from the discussion: the importance of Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect when someone is treating you disrespectfully – no matter who you are.

The newspapers carried stories about how various police officers would have handled the situation. Some experienced officers said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful to a police officer, it is appropriate for the officer to arrest them. Others said that if a citizen becomes disrespectful, but are not committing any other offense, then the officer should just walk away from the situation. Some refined the situation, and said that if other people are present, then the officer has to maintain control of the situation and arrest the citizen who is being disrespectful or “disorderly” in their speech.

On the other hand, there are those who say that the professor was within his rights to be disrespectful to a police officer, because the incident took place inside the professor’s home. After all, a man’s home is his “castle.” Also, African-Americans have been singled out for years in the past by police in inappropriate stops when they are walking, driving (“driving while black”), and engaged in other routine activities for which whites are rarely stopped. Professor Gates had just returned from a trip and was probably tired. But he also was an African-American who teaches about racism and apparently felt disrespected by a white police officer.

I can certainly understand and empathize with the concerns of each person in this situation. But, as former General Colin Powell said, you have to “suck it up.” The key point is one that “It’s not about you when you’re personally attacked.” It’s about whatever’s going on for the other person – whether they have a high conflict personality or just had a bad day.

At our High Conflict Institute seminars we teach “Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect,” as a method of responding to personal attacks. We have exercises that professionals practice to respond to increasingly personal verbal attacks by clients with high conflict personalities. Perhaps this should be required for everyone.
“Wow, I can see you’re really upset. Sounds like you’re having a hard day. Let’s see what WE can do to solve this problem.” It takes practice to respond to someone who is treating you disrespectfully this way, but it is possible. As high conflict personalities increase in our society (and there is evidence this is happening), we will all be better off if professionals – such as professors and police officers – can practice calming people down, not just responding to disrespect with more disrespect or an arrest. Calming people down should be our goal. We need to practice connecting with people more and criticizing them less.

In this regard, I must commend the President, Professor, and the Policeman on how calmly they have addressed this issue after the fact. As President Obama said, it was a poor choice of words on his part. The ability to reflect and learn from mistakes – and make changes – will help us all.

[Connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect is Tip #8 in Bill Eddy’s book “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict Institute.com.]