A friend told me this tragic story about what turned into a very expensive trip to a local shopping centre with her husband. They are both smokers, you know the ones that give up from time to time, enjoy a rather tense and grumpy few days together and then start again (lucky bastards!).
Visits to shopping centres in pairs are rarely stress-free, one party invariably doesn’t want to be there and the other (who probably doesn’t want to be there either) HAS to get something, typically under some time pressure (the challenging mix of issues one sees in many negotiations). Throw in no car parking spaces, light rain and less than a 90-second contingency before the kids need picking up from school, and you have the makings of a divorce-inspiring cold afternoon in February.
“You’ll have to wait with the car, or we’ll get a ticket” said Kate grabbing a broken umbrella, leaving her husband Charlie to clamber across from the passenger’s side to take charge of the idling car. He missed the ashtray, covering his lap on the way across whilst concertinaing into the impossibly small space left by his wife. Everything feels like hard work on a day like this.
Running to the entrance of the shopping centre Kate cast her cigarette end, without a backwards glance, towards a drain hole. Inches from the revolving doorway someone dressed for a SWAT team exercise stepped into her pathway. “Stop”, the officious officer ordered. “You’ve just littered on public property and I have a camera that has recorded this infraction”. “I know, I know I’m really sorry” Kate said, genuinely apologetic, but looking at her watch and seeing those precious seconds tick by. “But I did throw it down the drain” she protested. “You missed” replied the forensic specialist of community enforcement smugly pointing at the offending, sodden butt next to the drain and also her camera at the same time. “OK, well, I’ll pick it up” suggested Kate, keen to get back to the mission in hand. “Thank you” said the official “and you also need to pay the £80 on the spot fine before you go”. “What?” pleaded Kate. “It’s half the £160 online price, if you pay now” said the triumphant officer.
The shopping inside was completed efficiently but Kate was dreading going back to the car and sharing the hideous news that this trip had just cost £80 more than planned. Her husband was looking pretty grumpy as she approached. This isn’t going to go well she thought.
Charlie was standing with a debit card and receipt in hand. “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me” he said contritely, casting an eye towards the retreating, but positively buoyant, enforcement officer…
“You utter moron” Kate shouted, before bursting out laughing and sharing her similar experience. The delirious relief they both shared, compared to the dread they have both felt barely seconds previously, at the prospect of sharing their disasters with each other, was enormous. This fear was based on assumptions they both made. That’s what we do, we make assumptions. And we stress and angst about them, when more often than not there is a simple explanation, or shared problem that we can use to help us navigate through conflict. Just like we see every week in our negotiations.
As for the wasted £160? You could have bought 330 grams of Golden Virginia for that. Or 131 nicotine patches!
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