Listen to the audio version of this post here.


The conversation went off the rails. Fast.

I’d called our alderperson’s office to follow up on a neighbor’s report of a shooting down at the corner the other night. They say the more calls we make, the more likely we are to get some kind of help from city officials. You know, “squeaky wheel” and all that.  So, I dutifully picked up the phone.

When I introduced myself, the aldermanic aide went right into her spiel. “The alderman is, of course, very concerned about incidents blahblahblah.”

I roll my eyes and jump in. “Spare me the boilerplate, please.” I mean really, I can tell from her tone of voice she’s said the same thing hundreds of times, and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Maybe never did.

She ma’ams me. As in, “Ma’am, I’m trying to tell you …”

More eye-rolling, along with, “This is not helpful.”

She says she’s been on a difficult call, she has to go, she’ll call me back in a few minutes.

I say that won’t be necessary; “I’ve gotten the message.”

I add an icy “thank you” and say goodbye.

Then I seethed. And fumed. And talked myself down enough to call our police district’s CAPS office.

(CPD’s website says, “The partnership between police and community is the foundation of Chicago’s own philosophy of community policing, known as CAPS — the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.”)

That conversation wasn’t much more productive. Talk about patronizing! The guy practically patted me on the head and told me to run along now.

I was sitting here thinking about moving to the suburbs when the phone rang.

And I proceeded to have a lovely conversation with the same young woman who had infuriated me a few minutes earlier.

How did that happen?

Seriously. We’d been at each other’s throats, conversationally speaking, just minutes earlier. I felt my own emotion, and I could hear hers; she clearly had no use for me. And yet …

It’s worth looking at how we turned things around. Because, let’s face it, most of us have occasions these days when it would behoove us to shift from combat to cooperation.

She apologized and explained.

She’d  been on a tough call, was already upset, and shouldn’t have tried to talk to me just then. It would have been better to have someone take my number and give her time to collect herself before talking to yet another constituent-with-an-issue. She was sorry. Very sorry.

It’s hard to beat a sincere apology for getting back on the right foot. And explanations always help us accept a request, including a request for some grace.

I apologized and explained.

Along with my neighbors, I’m nervous about increasing incidents in what has until recently felt like a very safe area. I’m frustrated by the inadequate response from city officials, whose attention is focused on higher profile neighborhoods.

I know this aide-to-an-alderperson is not responsible for the city’s approach to crime, violence, and policing. I know she gets tired of people calling to complain, and I’d guess people rarely call for any other reason.

And, it’s important to me that somebody hear us and respond with more than pro forma bromides.

We started fresh.

Really, we’re on the same side here, right? We’d both like the neighborhood to be safe; her office is only a few blocks from my home. Wouldn’t it be smart to approach this as allies instead of adversaries?

Why yes, yes, it would.

So, she told me about PODS. Police Observational Devices—the rest of us might just call them cameras. We’re getting a new one in the neighborhood. Maybe it will help the cops spot the miscreants.

Then there’s OEMC. Office of Emergency Management and Communications—that’s where 911 calls go. They keep track of who calls from where and (this is the important part) they allocate resources accordingly. So, a police beat that generates few calls gets … not much in the way of protection.

And of course, CAPS has a meeting every month where citizens have at least a theoretical chance of talking to the people in charge of keeping them safe. She suggested I go to the next one.

I’ve attended one CAPS meeting. It was on Zoom and my main impression was, “These people need my master-your-virtual-platform coaching.” Sheesh. But okay, I could give it another try.

We laughed.

I can’t even tell you now what was so amusing, and chances are you wouldn’t find it funny anyway. In the context though, we found some things to chuckle about.

It’s a challenge to chortle and be irate at the same time.

Then there was thanking. A lot of thanking.

I thanked her for her suggestions. She thanked me for giving her grace. I thanked her for listening to my concerns. She thanked me for being willing to talk a second time. I thanked her for making the call, which couldn’t have been easy after our first go-round.

And if I’d thought about it then, I would have thanked her for giving me a study in communication to share with you.

And it is worth sharing, don’t you think?

There’s so much free-floating irritation these days, so many reasons to be peeved—and even outraged. I know they say, “feel your feelings.” I’m just not sure those feelings are that good for any of us.

So, I offer my experience with the alderman’s assistant as a sort of template.

When a conversation gets heated, we can realize we don’t know what’s been going on in the other person’s world. Apologize. Explain. And find some common ground. Bonus points if we can laugh in the process.

Those simple steps can be a pathway to grace.