Pivot Toward the Positive

Responding to a negative attitude by asking a simple question might yield surprising results.

By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

My father is 90 years old, drives a car, and lives independently. As a World War II veteran and someone who lived through the Great Depression—  among other significant experiences—he has strong opinions. He does and says as he pleases, often without caring much about the reactions his responses evoke. This can lead to challenging, sometimes awkward situations. Enter my teenage daughters, who care very much about what people think, and you have the ingredients for a potentially challenging social dynamic.

Recently, a situation that highlighted all of these players and feelings provided me with the opportunity to see the power we all have to transform our interaction with people by replacing challenge and negativity with curiosity. Here’s my story.

A man who lives in my father’s apartment building has a parking space parallel to my father’s. A few months ago, the man began parking his car so that it extended out into the main area of the garage, making parking difficult for my father and other residents. My father reacted to what he felt was disrespectful behavior by behaving in an unfriendly way whenever he saw his neighbor. The situation deteriorated enough that my daughters did not want to ride in the elevator or walk in the hallway with the man. This scenario continued for months.

One evening, as my family walked through the garage on the way to my father’s apartment and saw his neighbor, I got curious. I walked up to the man and asked him why he parked his car the way he does. What followed amazed me. He told me that he disliked my father because he wrote a letter to the building manager in which he complained about how this man parks. I continued to listen, though I doubted this letter existed, as I usually wrote letters on my father’s behalf. He then told me that he can’t afford to lose his parking place because he has a son who is disabled and requires a wheelchair. I told him that I was very sorry about his son. He then said he would see what he could do about how he parks. I again told him that I was sorry about his son, and we parted ways.

From that day forward, he has parked his car in the appropriate manner, he waves at our family when he sees us, and we all speak comfortably.

The encounter, and the behavior change that followed, made me consider how transformative an open, honest dialogue can be. By speaking openly, our perspective shifted; we learned that this neighbor is not a nasty man but rather a parent who looks after his disabled adult child. Equally important, I was able to model kind, appropriate behavior for my daughters— and for my father. The shift has been significant; anger has been replaced by joy and the understanding that significant behavior change can happen in an instant. All it takes is curiosity and speaking from the heart without judgment. (If this isn’t clear, think about how a six-year-old asks about something she doesn’t understand.)

This story has a very satisfying ending. We all enjoy our interactions with this man and are so pleased about how the relationship has evolved.

What small changes can make a big difference in your own interpersonal encounters?

Get Curious.

I was curious and asked a direct, open-ended question—no judgment, no attitude. When you operate “from the heart,” with curiosity and without judgment, it is hard for someone to be angry or hostile with you. Sometimes we use judgmental words that have a negative effect, and we don’t realize their impact. If you are interested in exploring this further, look into the work of Marshall Rosenberg, the “father of nonviolent communication.”

Be Open to Other Possibilities.

Listen. The story would have had a very different ending if I had told the man that he was parking horribly and annoying everyone in the garage. What can you do to be more open to someone else’s story?

Think About the Behavior You Are Modeling.

We often take for granted our power and how we influence others. As a parent, every word and action is seen. Children learn what they live. Do I want my children to learn to be peaceful or angry? Think about who and what motivates your behavior.

My guess is that all of us have stories similar to this one. When was the last time you felt the brunt of someone’s anger or disrespect, whether word or deed? How did you react? Next time, before you respond, ask yourself: What battle are they fighting? Think about what would be different if instead of anticipating a negative interaction you took the initiative and asked the person how her day was going? You might be surprised, and you might not. Either way, you have done a good thing by being open and trying to help someone else. In these turbulent times, adding a little more positivity into the universe can be a powerful step. It may come back in a surprising way.


Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator. Denise creates and facilitates workshops for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe. Her areas of expertise include social and emotional intelligence and relationship coaching. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life, from the international business executive to the stay-at-home parent. She received her MSW degree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at dkgcoaching.com.