Antoinette Tuff. We are sure many of you heard the 911-recorded (very tough) conversation on August 20 between Ms. Tuff and Michael Brandon Hill. He was the AK-47 toting 20-year old who on August 20 threatened the lives of more than 800 students at a private school in Decatur, Georgia.
Her conversation as broadcast nationwide was spell-binding. Imagine you are sitting in your office carrying out your bookkeeping duties and a mentally ill guy dressed in black, armed with a loaded automatic weapon and 500 rounds of ammo storms into your office and takes you hostage.
Despite being ‘terrified’ of the man Ms. Tuff had the presence of mind to carry out an empathetic, calm, and compassionate conversation with a deranged individual intent on killing everyone in sight.
What can we learn from Ms. Tuff’s heroism under such extreme circumstances?
1. More than anything I was impressed with her empathy. After Mr. Hill explained that he had nothing more to live for, Ms. Tuff shared with him some of her personal hardships: her husband walked out on her after 33 years of marriage and that she was tempted to take her own life after he left her.
2. Calmness: Facing a mentally ill person bent on killing, Ms. Tuff remained amazingly calm. She could have reacted angrily or fearfully. Instead she treated him like anyone else who might have entered her office: with respect (calling him ‘sir’ and later ‘baby’) and presence of mind.
3. Compassion: Ms. Tuff demonstrated that she genuinely cared for Mr. Smith. She assured him that “we’re not going to hurt you.” She offered to serve as a human shield and walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot. She even told him that she loved him and was proud of him as he relinquished his weapon and prepared to surrender to the police.
Two other elements stand out for me: In addition to Ms. Tuff’s calming presence of mind and abiding compassion, she didn’t think Hill was a bad person, and she patiently listened to him. What a lesson for all of us: If Ms. Tuff’s empathy and compassion averted what might have been another tragic school shooting, how can we engage these qualities in our day to day non-crisis encounters with others?
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