Good Gal Without A Gun

Kind words go a long way. canstockphoto10578325

Kind words go a long way.


Antoinette Tuff is more effective than a SWAT team at disarming a dangerous shooter. As some of you will remember, this 33-year-old bookkeeper at an Atlanta elementary school used human connection to prevent the slaughter of innocent children, faculty and staff members. That’s powerful stuff, considering how frequently we hear that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

I recognize that sometimes deadly force is necessary to stop violence or the imminent threat of violence. I also recognize that empathy is the last thing on most people’s minds when they are staring down the barrel of a loaded weapon. Therefore, I recognize what an extraordinary human being Tuff is. On that hot August afternoon, a whole team of armed guards could not have accomplished what she did with her kind words. I applaud her weapon of choice.

Lock and load your ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes I say. Empathy is remarkably effective. When one person treats another person with compassion, the emotional connection can dissolve anger and soften hearts. Sound too touch-feely? Well, consider the feeling of a bullet touching—piercing—your body. Given that painful alternative, a peaceful approach has unique appeal.

In this case, the 20-year-old shooter entered the school carrying multiple weapons and more than 500 rounds of ammunition. He was clearly ready for battle; ready to slaughter children, faculty and staff members. Tuff responded with calm, kindness and respect, three powerful antidotes to rage. She called the shooter “sir” and “baby.” She shared moving chapters of her life story, including her attempted suicide after her husband left her. She told him about her son, who is hearing impaired and legally blind. In essence, she told him about her own diploma from the school of hard knocks. I’m sure he could relate. And whenever someone can relate, magic happens.

Expressing empathy—an understanding of how another person feels—causes immediate physiological changes. The person’s heart rate lowers; their respiration slows; their blood pressure decreases; stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, stop being secreted and are slowly metabolized. The mind and body gradually relax. Empathy is the verbal equivalent of a tranquilizer dart gun. It can work that quickly.

Empathic remarks don’t always soothe the soul, but they’re almost always a better alternative than killing someone. That’s why hostage negotiators are not called kidnapper assassins. Blasting someone between the eyes is the opposite of touching their heart. Positive feelings are the opposite of violent impulses. But make no mistake, empathy takes practice.

So, let’s practice with a less violent, more prosaic example of negative emotions: frustration with homework. Imagine you’re sitting with your child, your student, or a young family friend. Head in hands, the youngster declares (as many do), “Math sucks!”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Your options at this point include: agree, disagree, punish, problem-solve or empathize. Here’s what each one might sound like:

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