“Didn’t you just have a birthday?” a club member asked a staffer in the women’s locker room.
“Yup,” she responded. “It was so-so. I was alone, but I watched President Trump’s impeachment vote.” “Well, that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,” the member replied. “It was excellent!” the staffer said. “He was acquitted. All is good.”
And then, instantly, the locker room chatter was smothered in a big wet towel of silence. It happens these days whenever we encounter the perceived political Great Divide. I left the locker room and made my way to the pool, only to find another unpleasant encounter. It was her again: the Pool-Hog in the Ugly Yellow Bathing Cap.
I can't even express how much this woman irritates me. It\'s already a small pool, and now with the ever-expanding morning classes, there are only one or two lanes available for lap swimmers like me. And I swear: she spends entire mornings in that lane.
A few days ago, she was walking in the only available lane. So I went over to the hot tub to stretch while I waited for her to finish. Thirty minutes later I went back to the pool and when I finally got her attention, I asked: “How much longer do you think you’ll swim (even though she technically doesn't swim)?”
She looked at me blankly and said nothing. NOTHING.
“I’m wondering because I need to get in a swim before I go to work, and there’s only one lane available. Do you have any idea of when
you’ll be done?” She continued to stare at me like she didn’t understand a word I’d said. Then she smiled, turned around, and walked in the water slowly away.
Now here she was again.
The swimmer in the second lane got out and I jumped in, only to be told there was yet another swim class about to start and the second
lane would soon disappear. Ugly Yellow Cap was showed no empathy as she continued to walk in the only available lane that was reserved for lap swimmers.
I quickly said to her, “I need to share this lane with you.” Again she gave me the blank look. I was in no mood.
“I’m coming into this lane now. It’s a lap lane and I need to swim.” No, she said, while shaking her head dramatically back and forth. I work, I told her; I only have a limited amount of time; I swim for 30 minutes; I have to swim to manage my pain. “Please,” I said.
She didn’t respond yes or no; she just kept walking. So I ducked my head under the rope and started swimming. She continued to walk in the lane, and when we passed the next time, I made a point of thanking her . . . even though I was in the right, dammit. I finished and headed to the hot tub and wouldn’t you know it? She was in there, waving at me.
Nooo! I don’t want to be your friend! I don’t like you one single bit! You’re not fair and you’re not sharing and you’re not taking
responsibility for anything! Then suddenly—the one who never spoke—started using her words.
“I’m Ginny! How was your swim?” she asked, and then told me that her doctor recommended she use the pool as often as possible. She walks with a cane at home. And sometimes her hip hurts so much from osteoarthritis, it just crumbles and she falls.
Yeah, okay. Now I felt like The Grinch. My heart grew a little bit and started to hurt. I asked her what time she usually swam. “When it’s not busy,” she said. (Liar!). When I pointedly asked how long she likes to swim, the passive face returned before she said, “Depends if someone is waiting.” (Liar! Liar!)
As I got out, she smiled and waved and wished me a good day—using my name. I noticed that she has a pretty smile.
Back in the locker room, I heard her explain to someone how much she hurts; how she recently fell; how she hardly goes out in the winter because she’s afraid of falling, and how her doctor says she has to be in the pool as often as possible.
My heart warmed a bit more as I better understood Ginny’s story. But then she continued proudly, “I got in the lap lane
at 6:30 this morning and got out at 8:30!” My anger flared. Lying lane hog!
Momentarily, I was back in the Great Divide—but only for a second and then my anger fizzled. She was no longer the lady with the ugly yellow swim cap—she was Ginny, a woman with a story and a need just like me.
Fact, Feeling and Values: The Ladder of Listening
Then I applied the Fact-Feeling-Values ladder of Generous Listening (People Skills Handbook, Aanstad, et al.; The Mediator\'s Handbook, Beer & Stief ) to our conversation and here’s what I learned:
- Ginny’s Fact is that the doctor advises her to swim as much as possible; she needs to swim in order to walk.
- Her Feelings are that she is anxious about her aging and hip issues. She lives alone, feels frail and is really
scared of falling.
- Her Values are that she will do whatever the doctor says to take good care of herself, as her health is a priority.
Empathy built a bridge over my Great Divide. Whether or not I agreed with Ginny, I understood her subjective truth and how she feels. (Read more about empathy here.)
She and I will have to compromise. God knows how—I’m really not looking forward to continued negotiation—but we will have to figure
it out because there really are no other options. Perhaps the Great Divide really isn\'t hopeless. Perhaps when we feel out of options is exactly the time we need to engage empathy. At least that’s what Ginny taught me. And while she may or may not be on the same page as me, we own it together.
I recommend you go find an opponent today. Put a name and a story to their face. Listen beyond the facts to their feelings and
values. See how it changes, calms, and empowers you.
Like swimming, it really can help ease our pain.