My Volkswagen Fox was stuffed with four faculty members traveling on their day off to a museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The sun shone in my eyes as I drove down a tree-lined four lane street on a warm spring day. Traffic was light, but in my rear view mirror, I spotted a large pickup. As I watched, I noticed the truck growing rapidly in the mirror. I checked my speedometer which read 35, the posted speed limit. I called the driver a name, one I won’t publish here, as he rapidly closed the distance between us and sped past my car. He must have been doing 70. His brand new truck was jacked up high. I glanced into the passenger window as he drove by. I saw a baby.
I made a negative comment about him to my colleagues as he continued traveling down the road in the passing lane, increasing the distance between us second by second. He was five or six blocks ahead of us, where the road curved slightly, when we saw his brake lights come on. As we reduced the distance between our vehicles, we noticed the truck was in trouble. He was skidding. For a moment, he must have let up off the brakes as he tried to steer out of the slide. It looked like he was going to be able to return to the right hand side of the road, but he over-corrected and veered back onto the other side of the street.
Unfortunately, a car was traveling straight towards his brand new pickup. The truck was pointed at the driver’s side of the car at a 45 degree angle. Time moved slowly. By then, we had caught up, but were helpless to stop the inevitable. Since the truck was high off the ground, it slid over the car’s front bumper onto the hood and hit the windshield directly. The car stopped dead in its tracks and the truck skated over the car, ending up on its side in the grass.
We stopped to see how we could help. The driver of the truck was unhurt. He climbed out of his vehicle and was screaming and crying hysterically. The other car didn’t look too bad, but the windshield and the driver’s side of the car was crushed. I went around the car and peered through the side window into the back seat. I saw two young girls. I opened the back door and stuck my head in. It was noisy outside, but eerily quiet inside. Peaceful. The one child, a girl about ten years old, was lying on the back seat. She had a big knot on her head, but she looked fine. No blood. Looked like a small angel. The other young girl was buckled up slumped against the door. Neither was moving. I had expected them to be crying, but they did not make a sound. I figured they could have neck or back injuries, so I did not touch them, leaving the door open for them to get out or help to get in.
Outside the car, people from a business across the street had gathered on the sidewalk. One of my colleagues had been trying to calm down the driver. He wasn’t hurt in the slightest. I went over to help, telling the young man repeatedly that everything would be fine.
Of course, it wasn’t fine. The ambulance arrived quickly, and we spoke to the police soon thereafter. I don’t remember if we went to our original destination or simply stopped to get something to eat and talk. A few months later an attorney called me. He interviewed me over the phone, informing me that all three of the occupants of the car had died. Or maybe the mother of all people, who had to be cut out of the car, had survived. My memory is a bit hazy. The whole incident lasted no more than fifteen minutes I would guess. The truck driver pled guilty to vehicular homicide and was now being sued. I received a notice in the mail that the insurance company settled the lawsuit out of court.
The driver did not mean to hurt anyone, but he had a bad habit. He drove fast and recklessly. An accident was bound to happen eventually. I understood where he was coming from. When I was his age, I totaled a car. Fortunately, in my case, no one was hurt badly.
It took a while, but I eventually grew up after my one car crash. I developed some better driving habits. Since my days of driving the VW Fox, about 30 years ago, I consider myself to be a defensive driver. I use my blinkers, drive around the speed limit, and keep an eye out for dangers. I always expect the worst. The driver ahead won’t stop at the stop sign. Deer are hiding on the side of the road. Cars will run the light. Maybe I am a little paranoid. But, my good driving habits have helped me avoid quite a few accidents, and on occasion, my good habits have helped other drivers save me from causing an accident. As a result, I haven’t had an accident or a ticket since 1993 when I backed my VW Fox into a big truck’s rear end in an employee parking lot at Ohio University. My insurance rates are pretty good nowadays.
Good habits help us navigate where we need to go in our social interactions. Bad habits eventually get us into trouble. This holds true with driving and with interpersonal communication. For example, many of us have bad listening habits. Since listening is arguably the most important skill involved in relationship maintenance, people with poor listening habits ultimately pay a price. The speakers who aren’t listened to eventually feel that the pseudo-listener doesn’t care about them. This puts the relationship at risk. Another bad habit is rudeness. While people can get away with being rude once in a while, they eventually give people a bad impression which makes people avoid or detest them. Friendships won’t be created or won’t last long in those circumstances.
People’s bad communication habits aren’t necessarily character flaws; they often arise out of ignorance. For example, many people use “you” language rather than “I” language. One spouse says to the other, “you really piss me off when you don’t help out around the house.” This invites defensive communication and often generates unproductive arguments. “I” language encourages one to take responsibility for one’s emotional state, and it invites supportive communication. One spouse instead says, “I feel unappreciated when I have to clean the house by myself.” This invites the spouse to consider the other person’s feeling and think about ways to solve the problem. Supportive communication is the likely response. Learning how to talk this way can become a useful habit in romantic relationships, personal friendships, and work relationships. Saying excuse me when people bump into others may keep them out of a fight. Counting to ten, may keep people from saying something they regret. Never responding right away to electronic communications that make people angry, may cause them to reread and reinterpret what was written and think about how to word their response carefully to minimize misunderstandings.
We need to make it a habit to consider the other person’s point of view, to think about keeping our emotions in check, and to find common ground in tense situations. Easier said than done, but I’ve known people who always seem to know just what to say. They seem to have a gift for understanding others, making a good judgement about the situation, finding a way to get everyone to put things in a more positive light, and planning how to resolve issues. They have good people related communication habits. They are emotionally intelligent and verbally and nonverbally empathic. They weren’t born with these gifts; they learned them and turned them into habits. They are our leaders and our role models.
I hope you know someone who says the right things if you need to improve your communication habits. Bad habits are difficult to break and new habits are challenging to learn. But our habits are who we are and our patterns of communication can work for us or against us. Choose. And, by the way, slow down when you drive. A few more minutes on the road won’t make a difference, but a few less minutes may.