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.

A Collection of Conflict Resolution Quotes

I love quotes. They often capture big concepts in only a few words. They give me “thought anchors” to help me collect and focus my thoughts. This is a quick video I put together to capture some great conflict resolution quotes that help and inspire me. I hope it stimulates your thinking about the mindset of successful conflict resolution. Enjoy!

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.

Conflict De-escalation Strategies: Control Your Tone and Body Language

Face-to-face anger

The perception of threat is the primary cause for conflict escalation. The most important word in the previous sentence is perception. If you have no intention of causing the other person harm (either physically or emotionally) and they perceive that you do intend to harm them, your real intentions do not matter. With regard to the affect your actions have on the conflict, it only matters that they perceive you to be a threat.

The leverage point for de-escalating the conflict is their perception, and the strongest impact you will likely have on their perception is your tone and body language.

One commonly referenced study on the impact of non-verbal clues in the communication process comes from Albert Mehrabian. In this study, Mehrabian found that when we communicate about feelings and attitudes the received message (the receiver’s perception and interpretation of the message) is based on a combination of word choice, vocal tone, and facial expression. Meharabian expressed this observation with his “Liking Formula” that says:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Mehrabian’s study has been misquoted, misapplied, and misconstrued by many people to say that 93% of every message we convey to others comes from our tone and body language, and that interpretation is simply not true. What is true is that in ambiguous situations where we are conveying like-dislike and other emotional context messages to others, people place more emphasis on the tone and body language than they do to the words. The practical implication of this observation is this:

If your words do not match your tone and body language, people will believe your tone and body language before they will believe your words.

To become a master of conflict resolution, you need to learn more than a basket of tips, techniques, strategies, and phrases. You need to develop the ability to observe your tone and body language to identify inconsistencies between the words you are using and the non-verbal messages you are conveying.

When you find yourself in a conflict and you are working to resolve it successfully, choose non-threatening tones and body language so that your words of resolution will match the non-verbal messages you send.

photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

This article is from the De-escalation Tips series. Use the links below to read more from this series.

Using Apology to De-escalate a Conflict


Apology is a powerful — and often under used — conflict resolution tool. One reason for not apologizing that I often hear in my work with clients is the concern that apologizing either totally admits fault for the conflict or reveals a weakness.

While these concerns may be legitimate in some situations, they are overblown in most cases.

The perception of threat is the primary reason for conflict escalation, and removing this perception is the leverage point for conflict de-escalation. Apology works so well because it makes you less threatening to the other person.

Here are three tips for apologizing in a way that leads to de-escalation…

  1. Only apologize for your behaviors, words and actions, and never apologize for the other person’s feelings or interpretations.
    While it can happen, I seldom see situations where a conflict starts and escalates due solely to the actions of one person. So, there is likely some word choice, tone, or action that you contributed to the conflict escalation. When you are willing to take responsibility for your contribution, you tend to reduce the perception the other person has that you are a threat to them.Likewise, when you apologize for the other person’s feelings, you subtly imply that you are in control of their emotional state. For many people, when you claim ownership for their feelings you convey a threat signal.
  2. Maintain appropriate eye contact.
    Appropriate eye contact conveys respect and trustworthiness. As a result, good eye contact is a critical component of an effective apology.
  3. Make sure your tone and body language match your message.
    In his often quoted (and misquoted) communication study, Albert Mehrabian found that body language and tone are the majority contributors to the received message in face-to-face communication. For the purpose of this post, the key observation is that when the message conveyed by tone and body language does not match the message sent by your word choice, the listener tends to believe the tone and body language in preference to the words.

With these tips in mind, here are some suggested ways to successfully phrase an apology…

  • “I apologize for the tone I used.”
  • “I am sorry that I spoke in a way that was offensive to you.”
  • “I am sorry that I said/did ______.”

Please add your tips and suggestions in the comments section.

photo credit: butupa via photopin cc

This article is from the De-escalation Tips series. Use the links below to read more from this series.