Here is a good story. Years ago when my son was in pre-school, he had a little run-in with another kid on the playground that I believe involved a sandbox shovel. The mother of this other child, in all fairness, was chronically stressed out by the fact that her son did not handle everyday finagles very well. In retrospect, I believe she wanted her son's social issues to have a simple solution and therefore sought one at every opportunity. On this particular day, she accosted me in the middle of the playground, accusing my son of being some sort of tyrant who was bullying her son by stealing his shovel. She was very angry. Now, this sounds almost comical, and in hindsight it really was. But at the time, I perceived her as a threat. I am not a confrontational person by nature and I could feel my heart starting to race. Had I been confronted with this level of hostility just a few years earlier, before children, this could have developed into a fist-fight. But this was a children's playground! I was a mother, an adult. What to do?? As I stood there with my heart racing, my inner voice said, "just breathe". I consciously slowed and deepened my breath while hearing this woman out. I never took my eyes off of her face. I just stood there, breathing and listening to what she was saying. My heart slowed down, I felt a bit calmer. And then this is what happened: she lowered her voice a bit. Then she removed the hostile tone from it. Then she began to think out loud about what actually happened. She ended up talking herself into a full circle from hostile and accusative to gentle and compassionate, even concluding that her son was most likely to blame for the altercation! How did that happen?? It turned out that remaining calm, quiet and focused allowed this other woman to really hear her tone and her words. She realized she needed to tone it down a bit. The more I listened to her the more she gave up the fight. After all, what she was really looking for was empathy, not a fight. By my withholding a defensive stance, she was able to let go of the hostility and return to a rational state. And it all started with a focus on the breath!
This was a tremendous learning experience for me and I have used it since in other situations with hostile individuals. While it may seem "passive" to allow someone to finish their tirade as you just stand there and breathe, it is actually a very powerful stance in that you are able to remain in a rational state of mind. Anger is irrational - we lose sense of the bigger picture when we become angry. It is also contagious, in that when confronted by an angry individual we ourselves can become angry and defensive. This is how fights break out and usually need to be settled by other people who can distance themselves from the emotional material. To remain calm and rational is infinitely more powerful than even the most violent rage. It is also rather shocking to the enraged one, who is expecting a good fight. It forces your "opponent" to tone it down a notch if he wants to continue the debate. You, as the "breather", have the power to return the dialogue to one of civility, and no matter the outcome, you win because you exercised control over the hostility.