A participant on one of our conflict management courses once admitted to fits of full-scale road rage including on occasions jumping out of the car, making rude gestures and intimidating other drivers. He then added rather sheepishly that the only times he managed to curb these seemingly uncontrollable eruptions were when his young son was sitting in the back of the car. Interesting, how a simple change of perspective (‘my son is watching and learning from me’) can bring about such a change of behaviour (‘I’d better get a grip and calm down’).
So how is it for you behind the wheel? Are you ever in the aggressive zone (exceeding speed limits, weaving in and out of traffic to get ahead, habitually swearing and being in a bad mood in the car), the hostile zone (tailgating, preventing another driver from passing or entering your lane, flashing your lights, honking, making rude gestures in retaliation), or even the war zone (getting out and beating on or throwing something at another car, getting into a fight – or fantasizing about it)?
Cars do strange things to us and can change the meekest citizen into a trigger-happy liability on the road. In fact, our driving behaviour is a perfect practice ground for better conflict management at work and in life.
1: Many of us love and identify with our cars, but sometimes we can take the “car as extension of self” idea too seriously. If your boss or your spouse left you steaming, take care not to use driving as a way to blow off steam, same as you wouldn’t want to let it out on a colleague, a customer or your children. Find other, more useful outlets for your anger – for example, taking it up directly with who angered you in the first place.
2: Practice not taking things personally. Perhaps another driver cut you off; or the car in front of you is braking erratically. Before you assume the driver is getting off on your rising anger levels, recognise that you, as an individual, are not the target. Perhaps the driver simply made a mistake or was just oblivious to you being there. Maybe there’s a screaming baby, a loose pet or a crazed bee in the car. In the same way, customers and colleagues alike often have agendas we have no idea about, and it’s so easy for us to jump to conclusions and feel slighted, when in fact there is no reason for it.
3: Ok, so maybe sometimes the other driver really is a jerk. So what? If you feel the need to set every bad driver straight (endangering yourself and others in the process), check out whether it is generally important to you to make your point, to be proven right, to have the last word. It might be worth exploring more sustainable ways to buttress your self-esteem and sense of satisfaction other than bringing other people down.
4: Irrespective of how bad things are out there, whether on the roads or at work, there’s a few healthy self-management habits that can give us the edge and keep us calm and sane for longer:
– A good night’s rest, to start with. You know how cranky you get without enough sleep. It makes us prone to feelings of annoyance, resentment and even anger. Eight hours is still the recommended daily dose of sleep for adults.
– Planning ahead is not just good time management, it’s also better for our blood pressure and our sense of being in control. Do you regularly whiz through your morning routine in a whirlwind of chaos, trying to make up time while on the road? Do you procrastinate on writing reports right up to the deadline or avoid making those tricky phone calls as long as possible? Then you’re probably also more prone to a lead foot and a lost or bad temper. So get proactive and stop re-acting.
– Finally, get smart to your own personal stress clues: is it clenching the steering wheel in a death grip? Furiously chewing the end of a pen? Losing your appetite or suddenly eating for 10? Once you notice the signals, take action: a breath of fresh air, a stretch, a funny quote might be enough of a mini-break to interrupt the downward spiral. If it happens too often, you may need some more radical changes to get back on an even keel.