Last week, Mr. Donovan and I were on a shuttle at the Kansas City airport, heading back to the parking lot where we had left our car after an amazing vacation. Soon after we sat down, the man sitting across from us on the bus began yelling that the driver had skipped his terminal.

The driver apologized and said he would get him back there as soon as possible. (With the configuration of the airport parking lots and roads, he couldn’t just do a U-turn.) The man called someone and cursed loudly about his bad luck, then hung up and cursed some more. His body language suggested that he might jump out of his seat and assault the driver, who made repeated apologies and was visibly frightened.



Sitting across from him, I planned what I would do if the situation escalated. I would ask him where he was going and empathize with his problem. Although he was completely out of line and I was pretty angry at him for scaring the driver and other passengers, I thought some understanding and acknowledgement of his frustration might help calm him down.

Who knows if it would have worked or not. The driver let him off at a stop, telling him another bus was coming to take him back to his terminal, and the guy got off, still cursing.

I learned a few days later that there was principle of behavioral science in what I was planning to do. It’s called non-complementary behavior.

The idea is that humans mirror each other in our interactions most of the time. If you’re friendly to me, I’m friendly back. If you’re grouchy, I’m grouchy.

And if you’re antagonistic toward me, and I’m kind in return, it may be difficult for you to continue being antagonistic, because you’re wired to mirror my behavior. This reminds me of Proverbs 15:1 in the Bible: “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

Here’s how I heard about non-complementary behavior. On a writing project at work, my boss’s boss shared this remarkable video, which tells a true story about a woman who defuses an armed robbery by offering a gunman a glass of wine.



This is apparently part of an episode, “Flipping the Script,” of a free podcast called Invisibilia. Confession: I’ve never listened to a podcast in my life! I’m going to check this one out, though.

I think that expression “flipping the script” is really apt here, too. Then gunman had already written out this scene in his head: he points his gun at people, and they either give him cash or he starts shooting them. When people didn’t behave according to his mental script, it threw him off of his scripted lines and actions as well. His narrative was interrupted.

This idea of non-complementary behavior doesn’t just apply to armed robbers, or even to hostile men on airport shuttles. If someone is just cranky, for instance, I can choose to meet that with something other than crankiness.

It’s really difficult to do this! It’s human nature to point out that it’s not fair that the other person is being less than pleasant. The urge to retaliate is strong — never mind the fact that “They started it!” is a justification not worthy of anyone over the age of twelve.

It’s a great thing if you can stop negativity from spreading to you, which then stops you from spreading it to other people. And having a specific name for it — non-complementary behavior — might help me put it into principle more often.

Have you ever defused a negative situation in this way? Or does it sound like something you’d like to try? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading, and have a great week!