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Dondi Scumaci Blog

What do You Need?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

17 Responses to “What do You Need?”

  1. Doug Wagner Says:

    While I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this story before, that doesn’t mean I’ve had the ability to remember or the wisdom to apply it.

    Thanks for sharing this story. It is so important to remember that we often don’t know the story behind the story.

  2. Dondi Says:

    Thank you Doug for your comments. Exactly right. What seems to be…sometimes isn’t at all. I learned so much from this amazing communicator. Good to hear from you my friend!

  3. Philip Says:

    This was a first time hearing it for me. But WOW, the simplest things prove time and time again to be the most powerful when the conditions are right. THANKS!

  4. Dondi Says:

    Thank you Philip. So true…sometimes simple is so powerful. Perfect way to summarize it.

  5. Kathleen Smart Says:

    Excellent illustration! “a soft word turns away anger and a hard word arouses wrath”. This situation could have had a completely different outcome. I especially love this point you made – “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” Thank you so much for sharing this and reminding us of how simple it can be to shift an outcome by our own actions and a clearly and carefully thought out response.

  6. Dondi Says:

    Thank you Kathleen. Appreciate your comments very much. Yes, Improv is a wonderful metaphor for life! I researched Improv for my last book and learned some fascinating things. There is even an Improv lexicon. Who knew? Receiving our “offers” is key, “blocking” our offers shuts down the scene. Fascinating. I continue to practice and grow in my Improv techniques. :)

  7. Linda Ryan Says:

    Dondi, I love your writing! AND your authentic honesty about being annoyed with the guy. It’s reassuring to know that consummate pro’s, such as yourself, are also very human and I LOVE it that you’re not worried about telling us that. xoxo

  8. Dondi Says:

    Hello Linda! ALWAYS good to see you. Thanks for the kind word. I learned so much from watching this flight attendant respond with such grace and elegance. She was SO EFFECTIVE. Since that day, I’ve had dozens of opportunities to practice. Not sure I’ve reached elegant, but I’m working on effective. LOL!

  9. Christie Ellis Says:

    I love this story Dondi! I need to practice that statement more: “what do you need?” :)

  10. Dondi Says:

    Christie! Thank you. I need to practice this more too. Trying to be very intentional in applying the 5 insights. This is one of those lessons I wish I’d learned earlier. Those 5 insights transform situations – they just invite people to be more effective. It’s a win all around. ALWAYS love seeing you here.

  11. Christie Ellis Says:

    ALWAYS great being here and I absolutely love reading what you write :)

  12. Robin Thomas Says:

    Hi Dondi,

    I am so glad that Bob Burg introduced me to you and your writing on twitter this week. You touched my heart, and opened my eyes (and ears) to the five qualities of effective communication. I’ve posted them on my wall to remind me every day. I wrote a blog post that included you and referenced this story/qualities. This is the type of focus I would love spread across the world.

  13. Dondi Says:

    Robin,

    Bob Burg knows the best people! So kind of him to share this story and thrilled to know you found value in it. I am looking forward to reading your post. Honored to have those points posted on your wall!

    All the best,
    Dondi

  14. Beverly Mahone Says:

    Dondi,

    I’m here because of Robin Thomas. I have been on BOTH SIDES of the situation you described and you’re right–the power of words can make or damage the situation even worse.

    When someone chooses to meet you where YOU are instead of trying to make you do what they think you should do, your defenses come down because you can see that someone genuinely wants to help you.

    Let me share a quick story: One day, a young lady cut me off to take a parking spot I was going for. When she got out of the car, she was extremely angry and had this horrible look on her face as if I had done something to her. I thought I was the one who should be mad. I looked at her and said “Good Morning.” Then I told her how pretty she was and she should show off her beautiful smile because it made her look even more beautiful. She smiled and told me to have a nice day.

    I had no idea what had gone on before our paths crossed in the parking lot but had I chosen to handle it differently, I know the outcome would’ve made both of our days MISERABLE. Thanks for this post and I’d love to share it in my Boomer Diva Nation Group.

  15. Dondi Says:

    Nice to meet you Beverly and my thanks to Robin Thomas for making that happen. Brilliant way of putting it: meet people where they are. Your story illustrates that beautifully. Thank you for sharing it! I’d be honored to have you share the post with your Boomer Diva Nation Group!

  16. Laura Morris Says:

    Hi Dondi

    What an amazing reminder of the human spirit. i loved this sweet story and am SO GRATEFUL to my new friend Robin Thomas for directing me here to read this post. My husband and I have been in the human connection arena for over twenty two years, and the number one thing we have at the top of our list is finding out what is most important to people, and where their needs most need to be met. When our clients are struggling in their efforts as marketers we can usually point it back to this. They are almost always putting too much focus on either themselves, or what they THINK that person needs and wants, instead of ASKING them!!! Great post!

  17. Dondi Says:

    Laura,

    A pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your kind comments. Marketing really is the art of authentically connecting with need. That resonates!

    All the best,
    Dondi

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