This past Saturday I learned a thing or two about conflict management. My wife, CJ and I pulled into the parking lot of a local camera store where I was picking up some prints. CJ is wheelchair bound, so we drive a wheelchair ramp van with handicap plates. Unfortunately, the only handicap spot was occupied so I was forced to park between two cars in a regular spot, which meant CJ would have to wait in the car for me because there’s no way to open the ramp without the extra room afforded by the handicap spot.
As I walked by the handicap spot, I couldn’t help notice two things:
1. The car occupying the spot had no handicap plate or rearview mirror hanger.
2. The car in question was a Rolls Royce (pictured above, license plate redacted.)
Having been CJ’s primary care taker since her bicycle accident 12 years ago, I’m extremely sensitive to anyone who abuses the handicap parking privilege. I won’t even park in a handicap spot myself unless CJ is with me, though technically I could do so because our car has the required license plate. So when I saw this Rolls Royce illegally parked in the only handicap space, I shifted into RIM (Righteously Indignant Mode.)
“Who does this guy think is? Does he think that driving a Rolls Royce gives him the right to take this space when he has no right to do so? How dare him?”
I marched into the store where I loudly announced that whoever is driving a Rolls Royce needs to move their car because it’s illegally parked in a handicap space. Of the 10 or 12 customers in the store, no one responded, so I went to the counter and reported the situation to the store manager. Then I asked for my photo, and the counter person asked me to accompany him to the lab, in a separate building, which was closed on Saturdays, to help him find it. Later, when I was leaving the store, I noticed that the owner of the Rolls was getting in his car, so I marched over to give him a righteous piece of my mind.
The store manager had obviously spoken to him because as I approached, he rolled down his window and quickly apologized for the misunderstanding. Then he explained that he had forgotten his rearview mirror handicap hanger and that he truly was handicapped. To prove the point, he opened the door and stuck his half-severed foot out to show me.
Boy, that stopped me in my tracks. I backed off and apologized too, explaining how much I resented those who park in handicap spots who haven’t earned the right to do so.
He said he agreed and then I felt a little foolish and glad I hadn’t bitten his head off before I knew all the facts. We parted friendly, if not friends.
Conflict Management Starts With Managing Ourselves
It reminded me of how easy it is to jump to the wrong conclusions, especially when one has strong feelings about the issue. How often have we done so when it comes to something going wrong at work? In a study conducted by Dr. Eugene Jennings at Michigan State University, Jennings found that when things go wrong in the work place, only 20% of the time can it be traced to incompetence, ignorance, or a failure in accountability on the part of the person causing the problem, and 80% of the time the cause can be traced to errors in communication or faults in the system.
Ironically, when things do go wrong, it is human nature to assume the opposite and look for someone to blame. The experience with Mr. Rolls Royce reminded me how important it is to check out all the facts before calling someone on the carpet for their incompetence, ignorance, or a failure in accountability.