Responding Resourcefully to Abuse in a Public Place:
taking change skills out of your office into the real world.

“One of the most important things our brains can do is to transform hindsight into foresight.”

A few weeks ago, in a supermarket, I saw a young girl, perhaps 6 or 7, reach for something in her mother’s shopping basket. The mother slapped her hand sharply, the child winced silently—both physically and emotionally—and then the mother went on with her shopping. The girl’s silent response let me know that the mother’s slap was familiar; if it had been unexpected, she would have cried out.

I winced a bit too, remembering when I had slapped my kids long ago, before learning better ways to parent. I wanted to respond to this woman, but the few alternatives that I thought of at the moment seemed likely to make a bad situation worse, so I did nothing.

The next time something like this happens, I want to be prepared to respond in a useful way. Since then I have replayed that incident many times in my mind, thinking about what I might have said and done, and then vividly imagining doing it, noticing how the mother responded in my internal scenario. I tried many alternatives, repeatedly editing and adjusting what I did, in response to how I imagined the mother would respond.

Here are some of the possibilities that I came up with, along with some rationales for choosing them. If you take these as beginnings, you can probably develop even better alternatives.

Rather than approach the mother face-to-face, which tends to be perceived as confrontational, in the scenario that felt best to me I approach her somewhat from the side, so that we are facing in more or less the same direction, nonverbally allying myself with her.

I begin by introducing myself in a soft and friendly voice tone, holding my hand out to shake hands, “Hi, I’m Steve; may I speak with you for a moment?”

Almost everyone will shake a hand when it is offered, because it is such an automated behavior, so this is an innocuous request that few people will refuse in a public place. The handshake gives me a chance to make a brief gentle physical contact with her—I would hold her hand gently, and just a bit longer than a usual quick introductory handshake.

Then I would point to the hand that she used to slap her child’s hand, and briefly touch it gently if it was easily available—for instance if it was resting on the handle of the shopping cart. “I just saw this hand slap your daughter’s hand; I wonder if you saw the look on her face when that happened, and I wonder if this hand (pointing to the mother’s hand again, and touching it gently again if possible) was slapped around when it was little,” and pause to notice her nonverbal response.

Saying “I just saw this hand slap your daughter’s hand” invites the mother to view it as an outside observer. If I were to say, “I just saw you slap your daughter’s hand,” the mother would be more likely to perceive my comment as an attack upon her self, and respond defensively.

Using the word “daughter” rather than “child” invites the mother to identify with the daughter, because the mother is also a daughter. I could also pronounce “your daughter” so that it sounds like “you are daughter” to amplify this implicit identification.

“I wonder if you saw the look on your daughter’s face when that happened” is an embedded question that gently invites her to back up in her memory and recall what she may have seen, but not attended to consciously. If she didn’t actually see the look on her daughter’s face, it is an invitation to imagine how it looked, an easy task. And saying, “when that happened,” continues the invitation to perceive it as an uninvolved observer.

“I wonder if this hand was slapped around when it was little,” is another embedded question that invites the mother to remember her own experiences of being slapped, to further identify with the child’s experience, and hopefully to begin to build some “away from” motivation to consider alternatives. Since probably everyone has been slapped sometime in their life, this is also a request that is easy to respond to, without requiring an overt response.

“I can remember slapping my kids sometimes when I was frustrated and wanted to change what they did. It always made me feel bad, but back then I didn’t know what else to do when I really needed them to do something” puts me in the same category as the mother. Mentioning that I felt bad when I did that invites her to notice her feelings, and possibly elicit a bit of “away from” motivation to change. Since my experience is in the past, this is also an invitation for her to consider the possibility of putting her slapping into the past.

Then I would look at the mother, and then the daughter, while saying, “Children often don’t understand that adults sometimes act impulsively out of their immediate frustrations, and think that their parents don’t love them—or even worse, that they are unlovable.”

Looking first at the mother, and then to the daughter is a nonverbal invitation for the mother to also look at her daughter, and see how she is responding. The message is primarily directed to the mother, offering her a blame-free understanding that her slap arose out of inattention, while presupposing her love for her daughter, a powerful reframe. Since the mother has undoubtedly been punished by her parents, and has likely had similar thoughts about being unloved, or unlovable, the reframe also applies to her, and again invites her to further identify with her daughter.

But this is also a message to the daughter, who is standing by, listening intently to this exchange between her mother and a total stranger, reframing the slap as coming out of frustration, rather than a lack of love.

“You see, what I finally realized is that slapping teaches children that physical violence is OK in intimate family relationships. Later in life your daughter may find herself in relationships that are even more violent and damaging.”

“You see” is a direct command to visualize the content of the rest of the sentence, which is all about the negative consequences of slapping for the daughter. If the mother has also been slapped around as an adult, this is an invitation to think of her own experiences, and to further identify with her daughter, and the daughter’s possible future.

Bridging from “slapping,” which is specific, to the more general phrases “physical violence,” and “intimate family relationships” invites the mother to imagine a wide range of situations that are in addition to slapping a child’s hand in a supermarket. This can broaden the meaning of slapping to make it less acceptable.

Using the word “slapping” alone is abstract—in contrast to “If you slap your daughter,” which would be more likely to get a defensive response. By generalizing from “slapping” to “physical violence” and then escalating to “relationships that are even more violent and damaging” I am hoping to build strong “away from” motivation in the mother to do something different, while maintaining observer perspective.

“I’m sure that slapping is unpleasant for both of you, and I wonder if you would like to learn how to stop your daughter from doing certain things, in a way that also demonstrates your love and caring for her?” “Both of you” is yet another invitation for the mother to identify with her daughter, building on the “away from” motivation, followed by an invitation to consider learning a more positive alternative, while not requiring an overt response.

Then I would demonstrate a positive alternative to the slap, using something that I have seen Virginia Satir do. “When you want your daughter to stop doing something, you can do that firmly and decisively, while also expressing your love for her, like this.” Then I would reach out to the mother’s hand, gently holding it firmly as if stopping it from moving briefly, and then releasing it with just a hint of a loving stroke at the end of the release.

Although this is a straightforward demonstration of what the mother can do with her daughter that is more positive, it is also a healing communication from me to the mother, and from me to the mother’s younger self.

At this point, my next response would depend on how the mother had responded. If she had responded fully, perhaps even with tears, I would probably just shake her hand again gently—lingering a bit with the release, the way I would with someone I cared for and was a bit reluctant to part from—and say, “Thank you very much for your attention,” and turn and walk away.

If I was less certain of her response, I might ask, “Do you have any questions?” and respond to whatever she said or did. Hopefully what I had already done to establish a non-judgmental relationship between equals would serve as a solid foundation for going further if necessary.

Of course this is just an outline of a sort of induction and intervention, in which I have assumed that the mother would be fully attending to what I did, giving her little time to do anything but respond nonverbally, in a sort of guided waking hypnotic trance.

If at any time during this interaction the mother had tried to disengage, by saying something like, “This is a private matter between me and my child,” I would respond, “Well, you have done this in a public place, so that makes it a public matter, rather than a private one, and I am one of the public.” (This is a brilliant response I learned years ago from an Arnie Mindell video.)

Again, I invite you to think of alternative ways to respond to this scenario, in order to make what I have offered even better. The principles underlying the scenario above can be used for any situation in which someone is physically or verbally abusive, and you would like to intervene in a positive way—and of course you can also do this in a situation that is private, rather than public.

Think now of an incident you have witnessed that you would have liked to intervene in resourcefully, and imagine what you could say and do in a series of imagined scenarios in which you try alternatives and select the ones that work best in the world of your imagination. Your intuitions about what would or wouldn’t work will be displayed in your feelings about what you do, and in the responses of the other person in your imagination.

Of course you can also use whatever knowledge you have about relationships and communication to guide the responses you try, as long as you check them in your imagination. Your intuitions will usually be much more dependable than your intellectual knowledge, because they can respond to the totality of the unique and detailed situation that you are imagining.