Why the Desire to “Teach Someone a Lesson” Causes Conflict Escalation – An Internet Encounter with Michelle Hebden

The purpose of this post to examine the concepts of Progressive Boundary Setting as they relate to real life situations. Progressive Responses are designed to de-escalate confrontations. The desire to “teach someone a lesson” is not a progressive response, it is a confrontation escalator. Therefore, it is important to understand and recognize the difference.

The ease in which a person can fire off an angry email or make negative internet comments has provided many people with a new type of power. Instead of dealing with a person on a face to face basis, people are now able to comment, complain, and criticize from the safety of their home computer. As a result, restraint is ignored, aggressiveness becomes the norm.

I have never met Michelle Hebden in person. All I know is that she is a mother. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a school teacher. But Michelle wants to “teach me a lesson”. According to her latest email she states “I can certainly vent my frustrations (and I intend to do so) on the numerous parent list serves I belong to, with the babysitting co-op that I founded, in my daughter's preschool, and on whatever review websites I have to post to until I feel that my frustration has been adequately heard.”

Michelle is upset because I attempted to set a behavioral boundary with her. I had admitted that my business had made an unintentional error “Once again, I am sorry for what occurred. These types of events are clearly a frustration. But I have no intention of being the subject to either an email lecture or a venting.”

My point was that making a mistake does not give another person the right to be rude. Our society is based upon respect, and communication. The problem is that the faceless nature of email communication makes it very difficult to set a behavioral boundary. Progressive Boundary Setting only works when there is the real possibility of enforcement. This is one reason cyber bullying is so pervasive. The safety of internet communication provides an easy outlet for aggressive communication and faceless conflict escalation.

Ordinarily, I would have dismissed this encounter, but it was this comment from Michelle that I found to be most disturbing “I am frustrated because someone at your company made a mistake. I don't know who, and it doesn't matter why - scheduling mistake, someone's mother died, whatever.” Coincidentally, the day before, I received an email from a very good friend whose mother had just died after a long illness. Making light of a mother’s death shows an incredible lack of empathy from someone who is responsible for teaching children.

As adults, our actions set an example for children and others to follow. Children need learn empathy, as opposed to thinking only about themselves. In order for a civilized society to function, children and young people must be taught the importance of respecting others and themselves. It is our job as adults to teach children about the importance of respect, communication, and enforcement in the form of personal responsibility and accountability. We must teach them how to de-escalate conflicts and forego the natural desire to “teach a lesson”.