West Side Story and “Verbal Judo”

The other evening, my wife and I went out to the ‘Theatre Under The Stars’ in Vancouver to see Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant musical West Side Story.

I have loved this musical since I first heard the score and seen the movie (do you remember that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1961 and earned a total of ten Oscars!) and I was looking forward to an evening of wonderful entertainment and toe-tapping music and singing…as well as great dancing.

All of which I experienced.

But there was something else that happened for me as well.

It has to do with the fact that I see the world these days from the safety perspective – examining situations from the safety point of view.

West Side Story is essentially Bernstein’s modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

The theme of two lovers being thwarted by circumstances beyond their control.

As I watched the performance, in the beautiful open air theater in Stanley Park I realized that my world of workplace safety and relationships dynamics had impacted my stated goal of having a relaxing evening at the theater with my wife.

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What if someone had looked at the why?

As I watched the tensions escalate between The Jets (who are from Manhattan and who have ruled their “turf” for years) and The Sharks (who are from Puerto Rico having just recently arrived in New York and want “turf” of their own), I reflected that this often mirrored real life. Not one of the characters appeared to have the ability (or desire) to pause and reflect on “why” things are getting this bad.

One of the concepts that we introduce people to in our Workplace Violence Prevention workshops is Verbal Judo.

Verbal Judo was created by Dr. George J. Thompson, the author of a book called: Verbal Judo – The Art of Gentle Persuasion.

It was originally developed to help train police officers as a means to teach them how to use their mouths to diffuse situations rather than any of the other tools they carry with them. For police officers, their lives can sometimes literally hang in the balance if they don’t use language properly – I know this, having been a police officer for more than 35 years.

Thompson speaks about the ‘five universal truths of human interaction

  • People feel the need to be respected.
  • People would rather be asked than told to do something.
  • People have a desire to know why.
  • People prefer to have options over threats.
  • People want to have a second chance.

If you placed these universal truths into the setting of a brewing turf war in the West Side Story musical it would have ended very differently. Perhaps the very reason that the story resonates so much with everyone is simply that it does hit home so hard.

We have all had those moments in our lives when we look back at our behaviour in a particular situation and think “How did things get to that point?”

As I sat in the audience, I observed the triggers that set the various members of The Jets and The Sharks off. These triggers quickly spiralled their conflict upwards and eventually ended in a deadly war.

Sitting there in the comfort of my seat, I knew exactly what they should be saying to one another. What they should be doing in order to de-escalate the situation. As a result, taking the dangerous hot air out of the moment.

But when you are there….when you are one of the players involved (figuratively a Jet or a Shark) – it’s not so easy….and it often has to do with how we are feeling about ourselves at that moment.

That’s right…our ability to recognize those hot buttons within us and our willingness to see the situation from the other person’s perspective has everything to do with our level of self-esteem.

After a fight and before forgiveness often comes an apology.

But saying “I’m sorry” comes more easily for some people than it does for others.

Can you say I’m sorry?

A study by psychologist Andrew Howell and his colleagues at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton suggests that specific personality traits offer clues about whether a person is likely to accept responsibility for something and apologise. The team devised a questionnaire to measure a person’s willingness to do just that.

They asked participants to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements, such as “My continued anger often gets in the way of me apologising” or “If I think no one will know what I have done, I am likely not to apologise.”

Sound familiar to anyone?

The researchers then used the answers to determine every participant’s “proclivity to apologise,” and they cross-referenced these scores with results from a variety of personality assessments.

From the beginning, Howell was confident that people with high marks for compassion and agreeability would be willing apologizers—and the study results confirmed his hypothesis.

But the experiment also turned up some surprising traits of the unrepentant.

People with low self-esteem, were less inclined to apologise, even though they probably feel bad after a conflict.

Unlike people who experience guilt about a specific action and feel sorry for the person they have wronged, individuals who experience generalised shame may actually be feeling sorry for themselves.

Just the right amount of self-esteem is key.

The study found that narcissists—people who, in Howell’s words, “are very egocentric, with an overly grand view of themselves”—were reluctant to offer an apology.

The researchers were most surprised to find that a strong sense of justice was negatively correlated with a willingness to apologise, perhaps suggesting that contrition and an “eye for an eye” philosophy are incompatible.

Reconciliation may end a conflict, but it cannot always settle a score.

That is exactly what happened for The Jets and The Sharks.

A sample of the lyrics from the Jet Song point to that the way things ended was inevitable.

When you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way, From your first cigarette, To your last dyin’ day.  Then you are set, With a capital J, Which you’ll never forget, Till they cart you away. When you’re a Jet, You stay a Jet! 

The next time you are experiencing conflict, think about how you are feeling at the time….It will likely have a huge impact on the outcome.