Out of the Darkness

The science of post-traumatic growth.

The Power of a Smile

How a simple smile can transform conflict into connection

I had an interesting experience at my children's school this week. About six months ago, a crazy father was driving his car half on the sidewalk at a fast speed, along the road into the school. I was shocked and had a slight altercation with him, telling him his driving was ridiculous and dangerous. Two days ago, I was walking along the road into the school, actually a foot or so on to the road because the pavement was full of kids, and I see this same guy sitting at the wheel of his car about 10 metres in front me. He glares at me, starts up the engine and speeds past me at a ridiculous speed, so close to me that the car almost brushes my coat. It was obvious he did it intentionally, in revenge, to try to scare me. I instinctively lashed out at the car with my son's school bag as it went by. I contacted the police and they told me I should get his licence plate number and they would go round and talk to him.

This morning I was walking up to the school gate with my kids and the guy gets out of his car and walks up to me. I knew he was going to confront me, and for some reason I smiled. 'Next time I'm going to run you over,' he said to me.

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'You nearly ran me over two mornings ago,' I said.

Then his manner suddenly changed, became less confrontational. 'I'm not going to be nasty, because you smiled.'

'Did I?' I wasn't even aware that I had.

'I shouldn't have done it,' he said. 'I shouldn't have tried to tease you, by putting my foot down so hard. I won't do it again.'

'Okay - let's just stop it there then,' I said.

He put his hand on my shoulder, and for some reason - without thinking about it - I put an arm around him.

How strange! It shows how powerful a smile can be - and how quickly conflict can turn to empathy, if you approach it with a non-confrontational attitude.

Conflict usually only arises when two people have the desire for conflict. Often, if one person meets aggression with benevolence and empathy, the tension dies away, like a flame with no more fuel. Conflict arises from separation, and a simple gesture of empathy creates an immediate bond. There is a shift from being adversaries to allies, from rivals to fellows. It's very difficult to hurt anyone who you feel empathy towards - and conversely, it's easy to hurt someone who you don't feel any empathy towards. And because human beings - apart from psychopaths and narcissists perhaps - are naturally empathic, we usually respond in kind to expressions of empathy. As the Buddha said 2500 years ago, ‘Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.’

I'm still going to look out for the guy’s crazy driving though.

Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. Eckhart Tolle has called his work 'an important contribution to the shift in consciousness happening on our planet at this time.' stevenmtaylor.co.uk

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Steve Taylor Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher in transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

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