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How I made conflict inevitable

I failed

If you had described the same situation to me as I’m about to describe to you, I would have advocated the exact opposite of what I actually did.

So what signals did I ignore? Why did I react to a trigger? And what might I have done instead?

The context

We live near the end of a single-track lane. If we and our neighbours are to have our refuse and recycling collected, the refuse collection vehicle needs to be able to turn round at the end of the lane. If it can’t turn round, it has to reverse 400yds down the very narrow track, and back out onto the road – which is a potentially dangerous manoeuvre.

Until recently, that was no problem. The owner of the end-of-lane property allowed access to a turning space.

But now the site is owned by a property developer who is less accommodating. Despite his agreeing to the caretaker opening the gate for the weekly collection, this doesn’t always happened. He did, however, agree that we neighbours should have a key to the gate, too.

So when a team of tree surgeons were on site and had left the gate open, I wanted to check that it would still be open for the refuse collection. If it wasn’t, I would have to listen out for when the gate would need unlocking.
I walked down the lane to speak to them.

What happened

As I approached the group, I encountered the caretaker, not a tree surgeon.

He was talking to someone on the phone as I approached. When I got near him, he finished his call and turned to me. I read the expression on his face as ‘angry’ – though whether that was because I was on site or because of his phone call, I had no idea.

The conversation went like this:

Me: (determined to be friendly) ‘Hi. I saw that the gate was open and I just wanted to check that the tree surgeons would leave it open so that the refuse collection vehicle can turn round.

Him: (Vehemently) No! I’ve had orders to keep it closed.

Me (somewhat taken aback, given that previous permission had been granted.) Oh. But we need notice of the change, otherwise the refuse people have to reverse 350yards along the lane and back out onto the road- which is dangerous.

Him: It’s our land and we can do what we like.

Me: (sensing a confrontation coming on and wanting to show that I understood his position, and wanting him to understand mine, so that we could work something out that accommodated both of us.)  You’ve got your orders (slight pause) and the refuse collection vehicle is due soon and won’t want to have to reverse back. What can we do to move things forward?

Him. (Not entering into dialogue) I’m leaving soon and locking the gate behind me.

That triggered in me a sudden surge of annoyance, fed by a long history of unpleasant communications from the caretaker’s boss. I lost the plot.

Me: (with a tit-for-tat tone of voice) So I’ll just unlock it for the refuse collection.

Him: No you won’t!

At this point, he strode over to one of the tree surgeons and said ‘I’m leaving now. Drive after me and park your van behind the gate so that it can’t be opened’.

My reading of the situation

I allowed myself to be provoked into a tit-for-tat answer.

What might that have triggered in him? Fear about what his boss might say, most probably. And maybe he also saw himself as on the verge of losing face (to me a woman, in front of a team of men).

And who knows what might have been coming down the phone at him as I approached?

That is speculation of course. What I observed was that he reacted with retaliation.

What I could have done instead

With hindsight, I could have backed off, saying ‘OK, we’ll have to see if we can get your boss to change his mind’ – and then walked away.

That would have saved his face, respected his authority and not soured the previously friendly relationship I had had with him.

Learning

Conflict only emerges when there are two (or more) opposing forces.

The caretaker provided one.

I fell into the trap of providing the second.

Conflict was then inevitable.

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