Even for an “almost” unflappable traveler, this had been a tough travel day. All the elements of delay were working overtime – broken planes, weather and traffic jams in the sky. It was on the last leg of this “endless trip” that I met one of the most amazing communicators on the planet.
This was a small plane. You know the one I’m talking about. (You practically fold yourself in half to board, your knees are firmly glued to the seat in front of you, the engine noise is deafening and you must force yourself not to think about how really, really small this tube is.)
I allowed myself a small sigh of relief as the little “rocket” taxied to the runway. We were finally going. This trip would finally end.
Just then the pilot delivered some discouraging news. Apparently we would be waiting “indefinitely” for our turn to take off. He graciously explained all of the (very good) reasons for this, but my heart sank just a little. It wasn’t nearly over after all.
That’s when the ruckus upfront started.
A man in the first row (sitting in the seat my knees were pasted to) became increasingly agitated. His traveling companions tried to quiet him. He wasn’t having any of it. His voice grew louder, the language became more profane and he actually started kicking the wall in front of him!
This behavior was beyond childish, the language was unacceptable, and kicking the plane? Are you kidding me? Are you out of your mind? I was furious on so many levels and gave his seat a firm nudge with my cramped knees. That didn’t help.
He was escalating out of control.
Because I had visions of the pilot turning the plane around for security reasons, I leaned forward to whisper a very stern warning in his obnoxious ear. Just then the flight attendant appeared. She had been watching this passenger carefully and now my worst fears would be realized.
She would scold him. She would crisply tell him to settle down or the plane would turn around. I held my breath waiting for her to recite the security procedures for passengers who misbehave.
Instead, she knelt down. She met his eyes and quietly said, “Sir, what do you need?”
He was stunned! Speechless! He stopped kicking! All of the angst drained from him and he said, “I’m sorry. This has been a really long day and I am so uncomfortable. I can’t breathe in small spaces.”
She brought him a glass of water, acknowledged his frustration, and continued visiting with him. Before long, he was smiling and laughing and breathing. The show was over.
As the plane took off, I was thinking about the power of those words, “What do you need?”
The natural response to this really “bad” behavior may have been quoting rules and threatening consequences. I’ve seen those responses on planes…and in workplaces. When people behave badly, we may be tempted to meet resistance with power. It sounds something like this: If you don’t do what I want you to do (right now), you will be sorry!
Instead, this amazing communicator chose to meet resistance with understanding. She reached through the ugly behavior and located the person – the tired, frustrated, panicked human.
Is this guaranteed to work? No, it isn’t. But I have seen communication miracles unfold when people apply the wisdom in the steps she used:
- Equalize the posture. This amazing communicator didn’t “stand over” the agitated passenger. She knelt to meet his eyes. She was confident enough to share the power.
- Reach for understanding. Agreement is not the goal. Understanding is. This passenger’s behavior was beyond ridiculous. I’m fairly certain the flight attendant did not appreciate or agree with it. She didn’t allow that to become the issue. She reached behind the behavior to find the need. As the wise Zig Ziglar teaches, “Fix people first. Then fix problems.”
- Use questions to draw out solutions. Amazing communicators ask questions that point to solutions. They understand “telling” or lecturing does not get people involved in solving. Questions give people a sense of control. (That’s a little magic when people are feeling powerless.)
- Focus on the real objective. I’m a big believer in objective-based communication. Go into every communication knowing what you are trying to achieve. The attendant’s objective was to calm the passenger. Her objective wasn’t to make him “wrong” or to “put him in his proper place.”
- Think like an improviser. Life and work are a lot like Improv Theater. Improv is based on the theory of “offers.” Everything that comes “at us” is an offer. The objective is to “receive” the offer and “advance” the scene. Amazing communicators are very good at this, even when the other actors are inexperienced or behaving badly, they know how to gently redirect the scene to more productive place.
Here’s to amazing communicators everywhere! You literally and virtually know how to help us rise above the noise and get us where we need to go.