Sunday, 15 July 2007

Airport queues and dispute resolution using conversational riffs

Have you ever been spear fishing? I had the opportunity to try it yesterday and it was remarkable. I caught a sea bass weighing about a kilo. Not bad for a man with a fish phobia. There was some healing going on right there. Albeit not for the fish.

Anyway I digress.

As we drove down to Studland Bay I was talking with a great chap called Lee. He travels frequently between the UK and America. We were discussing conflict and how people react to it.

He recounted an incident at an American airport. His flight was lost - whether cancelled, overbooked or whatever. He was in a queue of understandably angry people trying to get more information.

He got to the front of the queue and just had this one other passenger in front of him who proceeded to give the clerk an insight into his frustration.

Not surprisingly he was told there was nothing that could be done. He would need to come back the following day to continue his flight. Apologies on behalf of the airline and so on. He was frustrated when he started, he was angry when he spoke to the clerk, and he was still frustrated when he finished.

Lee steps up, with the same frustrations as the guy in front but tries a very different tack.

"Hi. How are you getting on?" he asks the clerk. "This can't be easy for you. What is the situation with flights?". The clerk tells him what she had told the last passenger, but then goes on to volunteer;

"If it will help I can offer you some meal vouchers while you are waiting"

Sure, says Lee, appreciating the gesture...

"And I can arrange" she goes on "complimentary hotel accommodation overnight to minimise your inconvenience"

The result? He didn't get home any quicker but he got to enjoy his unavoidable day in New York with only minor inconvenience and reduced stress. The passenger before him, with his aggressive, albeit understandable stance, was left with only his rage.

I wrestled with this, while fishing. Was Lee just being polite? Undoubtedly. But what else did he do?

He recognised or acknowledged the clerk's role in this situation, and gave her respect by doing so.

He also created space for himself to consider a different perspective rather than being consumed by the situation he found himself in. The result is that the situation was resolved as best as it possibly could have been.

Lee explained that a favourite line of his when faced with other frustrating situations is "Is there anything you could do to help. I'd greatly appreciate it if so." Again, Lee is inviting co-operation rather than laying down a challenge and even as he asks the question, he is reassuring the other party that they are safe to explore solutions together.

The other passenger was not only rude but unwittingly contributed to his own situation. Given the tack he adopted, which was quite a natural one in the circumstances, he not only reduced the likelihood of working together to find some solutions - meal vouchers and accommodation provided free of charge - but he made such collaboration impossible. In the face of his stance, was it easier, or safe, for the clerk to offer him assistance - which may well have provoked further outbursts - or easier to shut up shop, withdraw within herself and wait for him to move onto the next desk?

A simple fable but one I enjoyed in the telling. Thanks Lee for letting me share it. Now, anyone for sea bass?

1 comment:

Dina Lynch, said...

I've been in exactly that situation, standing at the counter feeling at the mercy of an uncaring organization. We can all relate.

However, when I've had the presence of mind to be curious about the actual airline employee and her experience amazing things have happened. Like Lee I've gotten help that was withheld from others and the feeling of being 'together in adversity'.

Is this a 'mediation mind trick'? Is it manipulation? No, it's true curiosity and empathy that allowed me to connect with another human being who- was functioning as the airline employee- and was just as frustrated as I was.

Recognizing and acknowledging commonality of experience- if that's a trick, we should all learn it.

Dina Beach Lynch