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