What a Diverted United Airlines Flight Can Teach You about Conflict Resolution

aircraft landing

Shock and dismay are the best words I can use to describe my initial response to the news that a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver had been diverted to Chicago due to a dispute between passengers over leg room.

In the days that followed, I heard of two more similar disputes on other flights.

Again, my initial response was much like the newscasters and commentators I saw reporting on the incidents…

“Really! How could they be that irrational!”

Then, I saw a report on the Today Show featuring one of the participants in the first dispute. The man who reacted aggressively to a woman reclining her seat into “his space” reported that, after the fact, he was not proud of his response.

This report lead me to reflect on what you can learn from what happens between strangers in an airplane that you can apply to the interactions you have in your day-to-day work and personal life.

As I reflected, I realized that, while the response of everyone involved in these incidents was both extreme and a bit irrational, it is easily explainable. In fact, it’s not really all that surprising when you understand some things about human nature.

Since I can’t have a discussion with the people involved in these incidents, I’ll never know for sure what drove them. Based on what I can see though, the most obvious lessons are explained by…

  1. Our desire to feel like we have been treated fairly. The desire to create fairness can drive us to react strongly and in ways that are objectively harmful to ourselves and our best interests
  2. Our desire to behave consistently with our past decisions and actions. Once we verbalize a commitment or commit to a course of action, we find it difficult to change that commitment even in the face of new information. This tendency can lead to what is sometimes called non-rational escalation of commitment — a willingness to continue escalating the investment of time, energy, emotion, or money to “winning” the situation.

In calmer moments, the people in each of these incidents are probably pretty reasonable and rational. They are probably not “bad” or “stupid” people. More likely, they are just people who let themselves get trapped by two natural responses that almost all of us fall prey to at some point in our lives.

In reading the news reports, it looks to me like the man involved in the first incident on the United Airlines flight (the person who had the seat reclined into his lap) perceived that the other person was unfairly infringing on “his” space and was interrupting him from doing work that he had decided to do while on the plane. The combined impact of perceived unfairness and an interruption to his committed course of action (working on his computer) triggered a strong emotional reaction that, for the moment, made him irrational.

Sad, yes. Surprising, not really.

By understanding the underlying psychological principles and how they can impact your response to situations, here are two lessons you can learn to help you build your ability to successfully resolve conflicts and reach peaceable agreements with others.

Beware of verbalizing or committing to a position early in a negotiation or a conflict resolution discussion.

When you verbalize your position before you have had the opportunity to uncover all of the facts of a situation, you can trap yourself into a desire to “save face” by remaining committed to your starting position. Stay open, curious, and uncommitted as long as you can when you are working to solve a problem with another person.

Beware of behaving in a way that is perceived as threatening by the other person. 

Ramping up your energy level or the strength of your demand is tempting. It often seems like a way to strongly make your case so that you can force a conclusion to the discussion. It’s both tempting and dangerous.

Here’s how it apparently played out on the United flight…

Man puts “knee defender” blocking devices in tray table supports to restrict seat recline of the woman in front of him. Flight attendant asks man to remove devices from his tray table. Woman in front of man then rapidly and forcefully reclines. Man pushes seat forward and re-inserts blocking devices. Woman then throws a cup of water on man. Airplane lands in Chicago rather than Denver.

The man behaved in a way that was threatening to the woman. The woman behaved in a way that was threatening to the man. Nobody won.

When you behave in a way that the other person sees as threatening, the probability of a peaceful and successful resolution is incredibly low. The more likely outcome is a rapidly escalating conflict with no easy way out.

To successfully resolve conflicts and negotiate agreements…

  1. Remain curious about the other person and their perspective rather than judging it, and
  2. Learn to communicate assertively rather than aggressively.

Six Questions to Ask for Successful Collaboration

Collaboration Word Cloud

The biggest problem with collaborative problem solving is the collaborative part.

Many new leaders became leaders because they know how to get things done. This individual ability to solve problems, applied in a team environment, can become a weakness as the new leader pushes strongly for a solution that others resist.

I have been that new leader who pushed too strongly too early in the process. That approach rarely worked for me.

As I began working to develop better collaborative problem solving skills, I read How to Make Collaboration Work by David Straus, and I learned an approach for reaching better group decisions. Straus’ basic premise is that collaboration follows six predictable steps or stages.

Personally, I apply what Straus teaches by asking six questions of both myself and others as we work to solve problems together. Over time, I have found that the approach works well.

If possible, I suggest using the questions in the order listed here. If you are already engaged in a collaborative effort that has gotten stuck, you can use these questions to identify where you got off track and to get the discussion moving forward again.

Is there a problem?

I might see a problem. Others might not. Before we can reach an agreement on the best solution for the problem, we have to agree that a problem exists.

How do you define the problem?

How you solve a problem hinges on how you define the problem. If you define it one way and I define it a different way, we will never agree on the solution.

What are some possible causes for the problem?

Once we agree that there is a problem and that we both define it the same way, we can analyze the causes. If we assign different causes to the problem, we will not be able to agree on how to solve it.

What are some different ways we could solve the problem?

This is the brainstorming and creative stage. We want to identify as many possible solutions as possible so that we can pick the best one rather than the first one that we identify.

What would a successful solution look like?

Most of the problems we solve using this process could be solved in many different ways and every solution will have its own set of benefits and drawbacks. At this stage of the process, we agree on the criteria we will use to evaluate the possible solutions. For example, if we must trade quality or time in order to save costs, how much quality or time are we prepared to sacrifice to save money?

Which of the possible solutions best fits the solution criteria?

Finally, we can wrestle with deciding which solution best fits our agreed upon criteria.

This series of questions helps people to identify hidden assumptions or conclusions they might bring to the table that would hinder reaching a conclusion that everyone can accept. The process can sometimes get messy, and it can take some time. The benefit in sticking with it is that the time you invest in the process will pay you back in faster and better implementation due to better buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm.

You Cannot Sell What You Do Not Own

For Sale by Owner

One day John, a newly promoted supervisor with Fictional Products, met with his boss, Bill, to discuss a new procedure recently mandated by a change to company policy.

John was not happy with the change because he knew that his team would not like it. The new procedure added two documentation steps to an existing operation, and he knew that it would add both time and energy to an already cumbersome process.

As he spoke with Bill, John argued his case to no avail. Bill insisted that John implement the procedure as written. John left the meeting feeling tired and discouraged. He knew that “selling” this change would be a tough job he did not want to tackle.

Before he called a meeting with his team to tell them about the change, he went back to his office to consider the situation more thoroughly. Sitting alone in his office, he thought through the following questions:

  • Does this change violate any laws or challenge any personally held moral and ethical considerations?
  • Does this change put anyone physically at risk?
  • Did Bill listen to my concerns and offer valid reasoning for the change?
  • Is my concern with the implementation specifics or with the overall goal?
  • Am I focused on avoiding the struggle and frustration I might experience as I “sell” this procedure to my team or am I focused on the end goal?

And, he concluded that…

  • The procedure change did not violate any legal, moral, or ethical concerns.
  • The change did not put anyone at risk physically.
  • Even though Bill disagreed with John’s concerns, Bill had listened to them and had offered valid reasons for the change.
  • John was able to agree with the stated goal even though he did not really like the added work the procedure demanded.
  • And, he realized that his real, and primary, concern was avoiding the resistance he expected to receive from his team when he told them about the change.

In the end, John decided that he needed to “get on-board” with the change, and then do the work necessary to “sell” his team on it.

John realized that whether he was selling something physical, like a boat, or something conceptual, like a procedure change, he could not sell something that he did not own. Because he understood both the reasoning behind the change and the overall goal, he was able “own it” despite some concerns he had with the implementation specifics.

Your Now Step:  Consider a change you have some reservations about that you need to sell to your team, use the questions that John thought through as you find a way to sell the idea to yourself before you try to sell it to others.

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Question What You Know Is True

Exclamation and Question Marks

When you know that something is true and someone says something to contradict that knowledge, you will likely reject what they said without giving their statement serious consideration. After all, you already know that they are wrong.

Sometimes, though, what we know is not necessarily based in fact. What we know might only be what we believe, and believing something to be true does not make it true. From a learning and behavior standpoint this confusion between what we believe to be true and what is actually true presents a challenge. Since we “know” that what we believe is true, we will act on that belief even though the belief is not actually true. And, we will reject information that contradicts what we “know.”

A few months ago, I was confronted with this type of challenge. As I listened to a well-respected speaker at a multi-speaker conference talk about productivity and time management strategies, the speaker questioned the two-minute offense often used in football. In short, he wondered aloud how a team that had not moved the football in 58 minutes of a 60 minute game could focus for the last two minutes and score a touchdown. As he finished this part of his talk, he said: “Why can’t they run a two-minute offense for the whole game?”

As he asked that rhetorical question, I immediately thought “they can’t do that.” After all, a football team cannot possibly run a two-minute offense for a full game. I know that to be true. Everyone knows that to be true.

Then, I began to question if what I knew to be true was actually true or if I only believed it to be true.

This questioning process is the beginning of learning. Until we question what we know to be true, we remain closed to the possibility that what we know is really only what we believe.

When I questioned what I knew to be true, I began to explore situations and to think about ways that a team might run a two-minute offense for more of the game. Questioning my beliefs about running a full game under a two-minute offense opened my mind to think about my personal productivity and time-management habits. Then, I began to question what I knew to be true about my ability to become more productive and what “facts” limited my ability to do so.

The speaker achieved his objective. He threw out an extreme statement about football that made me question my beliefs so that I began to think differently about time management and productivity. That was, in fact, his real objective. I do not think he really cared if a football team runs the full game using a two-minute offense. I do think he wanted people in the audience to rethink what they “knew” to be true so that they could learn something new.

As you continue learning and growing as a leader, continue to question what you know to be true. When you question the facts, you might find that they are true. You might also find that they are beliefs you hold rather than immutable facts. If you find the later, you have opened the door to learning something new.

For example, consider what you believe to be true about your ability to become more productive. What do you believe about your personal productivity? Are you really running at full capacity? Can you run a “two-minute offense” more frequently?  Can you be more focused for more short periods of time so that you can accomplish more?

Your Now Step: Identify a project you have wanted to complete that continues to loom over you. Look carefully at your schedule and identify two fifteen to thirty minute blocks of time in the next week when you can focus intently on only that project. Block the time on your calendar and focus on that project for that time.

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The Two Sides of Trust


Like so many words we use commonly, trust has many layers of meaning. While most of us have similar general perspectives about what it means to trust another person, there are some subtle differences in how we view this simple word.

The words I often use to describe the two sides of trust are transactional trust and relational trust, and here is how I define the terms:

  • Transactional trust refers to the trust we have that another person will do what they said they would do or complete and assigned task.
  • Relational trust refers to the trust we have that another person can listen to and understand our emotional state without passing judgment, criticizing, sharing it with others, or using the knowledge to somehow harm us.

At different times and in different situations, both components of trust can come into play in our interactions and relationships with other people. While most people experience and rely upon both trust components as they make decisions about how to interact with others, there are subtle differences in the priority that people place on the two components as they make decisions.

Leaders who focus heavily on task issues often place a higher priority on transactional trust – do people follow-through on commitments and complete tasks – than they do on relational trust. As a result, they can often find ways to stay engaged and working with a person that they do not “like” because they trust that the person will get things done.

Leaders who see the world through a relational filter often place a higher priority on relational trust – do people act in ways that build and protect relationships – than they do on transactional trust. And, they can often stay engaged and working with a person they like even if the other person has challenges with meeting deadlines and completing tasks.

Likewise, team members with a task focus often place a higher priority on transactional trust between them and their leader than they do on relational trust. And, team members with a relational focus place a higher priority on developing relational trust with their leader.

As a leader, you need to understand both how you and your team members prioritize the two sides of trust so that you can focus your trust building efforts in the area that will create the greatest immediate benefit.

To build trust with task-focused team members, focus on task completion and follow-through issues first and relationship issues second. To build trust with relationship-focused team members, focus on showing support and building a relationship first and task completion second.

Both forms of trust are important, and building high levels of both will contribute to creating a high-performing, high-functioning, results focused team.  To get the greatest results in the shortest amount of time, know your team members and focus first in the area of greatest concern to them.

Your Now Step: Think about the people you lead. How do they view trust? How have you been working to build trust with them? Does your approach fit their perspective? If it matches, good job! If not, adjust your approach to better connect with them.

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